Building a home theater PC (HTPC) isn't really difficult. Find yourself a decent motherboard and CPU, add an A/V style case and a TV tuner and you're pretty much set. Up until recently, your only options for TV-Out are analog connections or DVI. Most TVs produced in the last 5 years will have no problem accepting those connections, but newer TVs are equipped with a new interface named High Definition Multimedia Interface, aka HDMI.
The MSI K9AGM2-FIH motherboard we'll be reviewing today is based on AMD/ATI's 690G chipset. The 690G features the Xpress 1250 graphics controller and this particular board features both RGB and HDMI output. Designed for the AM2 platform, this board supports all current AMD AM2 CPUs and is Vista ready.
MSI K9AGM2-FIH Motherboard
The MSI K9AGM2-FIH doesn't come with what we would call an enthusiast package as the included contents are minimalist. There is the user manual, which is sufficient in pointing out to the user the basic functions of the motherboard. There is also one SATA and IDE cable as well as a SATA power adapter. Rounding things out are the driver CD as well as the rear IO shield. We also received a 2m MSI HDMI cable supporting 1080P, but this is not normally part of the usual package.
The MSI K9AGM2-FIH is a MicroATX board and for the most part it is well laid out. We tested the board with two coolers, the Zalman CNPS 9500 and the Thermaltake Big Typhoon. Neither cooler posed any problems with clearance with out Corsair ProSeries memory. That said, the ram slots are nearby, and if your cooler flares towards the memory, it may be possible that you will lose the use of the DIMM slot closest to the CPU socket.
Both the North and South bridge of the K9AGM2-FIH are passively cooled with an aluminum heatsink. Naturally, save for the case and CPU cooling, there is the potential of setting up a silent system. The South bridge did not get too warm during testing, but the North bridge did. We recommend adding some air cooling to it if you end up cooling the CPU with a water block.
Between the CPU socket and the rear IO are a series of capacitors and MOSFETs. As this is not an enthusiast motherboard and to keep costs under control, MSI does not attach any heatsinks to this area. To the right is a four pin CPU fan header and to the left is the PWR3 connection which is used to supply additional power to the CPU. We did have a few problems getting to this power connection with our Zalman cooler in place, but were able to do so without breaking anything.
The memory banks are coloured differently, but in any case the system support is officially DDR2-800 and lower. The board supports a maximum of 4GB.
Just below the memory slots is the PWR1 24-pin ATX power connection. You can use a 20-pin PSU, but for any high-end system, we would recommend against it. Just below the power connection is the IDE1 connection for legacy storage. Next to that is the floppy connection for the last 3 people on the planet who still uses these devices. In between the IDE and power connection is the CMOS battery.
The MSI K9AGM2-FIH uses the ATI SB600 South Bridge which handles most of the storage and connectivity needs. Four SATA connections are grouped together near the edge of the motherboard between the PCI Express graphics slot and the last PCI slot. The MSI K9AGM2-FIH supports SATA-II and all of these connections are SATA 3Gb/s compatible as well as being backwards compatible with the older 1.5Gb/s spec. RAID 0, 1, 0+1 are all supported by the AMD 690G.
We did not have any problems fitting MSI's NX7900 GT card with a SATA cable connected to SATA1. However, we were unable to comfortably fit the MSI NX7950 GX2 which uses a two slot cooler. The SATA cable was bent really badly and we were concerned about snapping the motherboard connection with this much tension. Moving over to SATA3 and SATA4 resolved this concern, but this is something to keep in mind if you intend to use more than 2 SATA devices.
Moving on to the peripheral slots, we can see the single PCI Express graphics x16 (PEG) slot as well as the PCIE x1 above it and the two PCI connections below.
Rounding things out are the external inputs and outputs. From left to right we have; two PS/2 ports, parallel, HDMI and RGB video connections, FireWire, four USB, one Gigabit LAN and the 7.1 sound connections. HDMI does away with multiple video and audio cables and allows for HD resolutions up to 1920x1080
We won't get into a long technical discussion about HDMI, will provide more information should you seek it. High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) is supported by the board and provided you have a HDCP decoder on your output device, you will be able to enjoy the full HD experience.
The BIOS for the MSI K9AGM2-FIH is about as barebone as the MSI mPC SFF computers we've looked at recently.
Your options are very limited and there is no control for CPU tweaking. From a gaming or performance enthusiast perspective, this can be a deal breaker. However, the target market of the MSI K9AGM2-FIH is centered around home entertainment where noise (or lack thereof) and stability takes priority over living on the edge.
While it doesn't make up for nitty, gritty tweaking, there are some memory adjustments that can be made in the BIOS. If you choose to make changes manually, lower values usually result in faster performance at the expense of stability.
Another item you can adjust is the amount of memory to allocate to video.
Rounding things out is the options to enable and disable onboard peripherals you may or may not need. If you're considering this board as a base for your HTPC, the H/W Monitor page will be of interest as you can control the fan speeds here to silence the computer.