You may remember last year I bought a gamestation to play games at home (and that means running Windows on it). Last month, I had to do a relatively big change: replace the motherboard altogether. And since I now managed to compare two motherboards of about the same generation, I thought I can give a bit of a comparative review of the two.
My original motherboard was an ASUS X99-S (which right now has an absolutely crazy price!) which I coupled with an Intel 5930K (which is not sold anymore). The motherboard on paper is great, SATA3, m.2 and so on, and it may actually be good if it’s not a broken one, but mine clearly was.
The first glitch I noticed, but not paid enough attention to, was related to the USB 3 ports. While all the ports worked fine, I never managed to install the ASMedia drivers, even though the ASMedia controller was meant to be backing some of the ports, and SysRescCD was actually seeing them fine. This bothered me for a while when I had performance issues on one of my devices, but otherwise it seemed ok.
The second problem was tricky to pin down exactly if it was always there or if it was an update causing it. When I bought the Gamestation, the memory was expensive so I only got 32GB of it. A few months later, I had some spare pocket money (well, I got some bonuses that I wanted to exchange for some gratification) and bought 32GB more. Stupidly, I don’t remember if I checked if it worked fine, just trusted it. A few months later, while trying to do some big processing in Lightroom, I came to notice that Windows only saw half of the RAM. I thought it was a bad bank or something like that, but any combination of shuffling the RAM around would only have Windows seeing 32GB of it. Even though CPU-Z would see all eight banks in.
At that point, Nikolaj suggested it could be an ME problem, so I went on and re-flashed the BIOS from scratch with an SPI flash adapter, but that didn’t help. Re-seating the CPU also didn’t help. I was appalled, but it was not enough to replace the board just yet, so I put the extra RAM to the side and soldiered on. I was wrong.
Last November, literally the day after my birthday, I came back home from a trip and wanted to download some dozens of GB of pictures I took… and my computer wouldn’t boot. The bootcode showed the system blocked in a CSM (compatibility system mode) failure. Trying all the permutation of things to change helped nothing, so it was either the motherboard or the CPU — I took a bet on the motherboard given the previous history, and ordered a MSI X99 SLI Plus while I was in the US — it was significantly cheaper than in Europe.
My hunch was right and indeed, the new motherboard solved the problem. The specs between the two are about the same, actually, there is the same ASMedia USB controller, though this time the drivers install correctly, all the RAM is actually seen by the system now, and of course the computer boots. But this is just the very superficial look at it. There is something else.
Both ASUS and MSI provide software utilities for overclocking, as it is expected for motherboards designed for the Haswell-E family of processors. But the approach the two take is significantly different. ASUS encodes most of the logic in the software itself it appears, with their “DIP5” core, while MSI appears to keep it in the firmware (that also appears to make the boot process a bit slower).
ASUS utility pack is called “AISuite”, and the major version is tied to the board’s generation, version 3 for the X99 motherboards. While there has been at least one update since the time I bought the card, the last version released for the suite was on 2015-07-28. In addition to the overclocking UI, the suite includes a handful of other board-specific tools: one to set the bulk transfer mode sizes (to provide higher performance on USB3 non-UAS devices, not needed on Linux as the kernel does the right thing by default), one to allow faster charge on iPhone devices, and so on so forth. Some of this is actually quite useful, for instance the faster USB transfer actually is useful, although it also has the side effect of stopping WD SmartWave tools from recognizing the drive, and so break your backups if you decided to use WD’s own tool rather than Microsoft’s.
On the other hand, a release for the DIP5 core was released on 2016-06-29, to support the new CPUs — their 2011-3 socket is full-pin, which allowed them to support a further generation of CPUs with only firmware updates. This is effectively an update for the various drivers needed for the underlying overclocking system, as well as a complete overhaul of the Suite UI — which is likely due to actually applying a newer-generation Suite to the motherboard.
Unfortunately, the new Suite UI does not come with a new set of add-ons for charger, USB, etc. This would be okay, except the add-ons ABI changed: the moment you open the Suite app, you have to press Enter so many times, as it tries to fetch icon files that do not exist. Copying the old PNG files into the new path makes it stop throwing up these errors, but the UI clearly shows the wrong icons.
Oh and by the way, starting AISuite with a different motherboard causes Windows 10 to blue-screen. I know because after booting my gamestation with the new motherboard I was welcome by the blue screen of death and I had a sagging feeling of dismay, expecting the CPU to be broken instead (turns out no, it was all the AISuite’s fault).
What about MSI’s app then? Well, their approach appears to be significantly different: first of all the overclocking app only has the overclocking function — they rely on ASMedia’s own tooling and drivers for the USB bulk transfer reconfiguration, and provide an optional tool for the charging options. In the spirit of not reimplementing stuff, they also don’t require any new Windows driver for this, requiring you to install the Intel ME drivers instead… which was fun because the copy I had installed from before the motherboard replacement was newer than the one MSI provides on their website.
And this makes the MSI utility more interesting: last update 2016-12-06, since they use the same exact package for all their boards, it includes no board-specific features and no drivers, so updating it is significantly simpler for them.
The end result is that I’m fairly happy. MSI does not have the tons of crapware that ASUS appears to provide for their boards. They do come with a “Live Update” tool, which I wouldn’t trust, even though I have not tested. Too many of those apps have forgot to implement HTTPS, certificate validation or pinning, making them extremely risky to run, which is unfortunate.
An aside, when you replace the motherboard of your computer, most systems that use computer authorization will consider it a new computer. Including Microsoft’s own Windows 10 license handling, as the Windows 10 license is tied to a EFI variable, for what I remember.
Of all those systems, Microsoft’s was the easiest to deal with, though. The system booted as unactivated, and they do try to point you towards buying a new license, burying the right interface behind “Troubleshooting”, but once you say “I changed hardware recently”, it allows you to just replace the previous computer authorization with the current one.
Both Google Play Music and iTunes require authorizing an additional computer, and that makes it a problem if you are close to the limit (because then you may have to unauthorize them all and then re-authorize them. Stupid DRMs.