Pros: Enthusiast-worthy overclocking at the price of a budget board.
Cons: Still looking for one, maybe the fact it's not typically available except online.
When you look at the Biostar TA970XE motherboard on the shelves of a computer store, or on the pages of the online retailer of your choice, it may or may not leave an impression. It comes in an aggressive-looking package that proclaims the motherboard as part of something called the "T-Overclocker Series," which is marketing lingo for "this motherboard can be used in an enthusiast PC, where the CPU is run to its maximum potential."
That said, some other things belie that claim. The first is the price, which can be anywhere from $75 to $100, depending on where you're looking, and what kind of discounts are available. This puts the cost of the TA970XE far, far below the cost of the most commonly recommended motherboards for performance PC's, such as the ASUS Crosshair series. On top of that, it's a Biostar product, and while Biostar is known for decent offerings in the value segment, their motherboards have rarely been known for their performance in heavy overclocking scenarios.
But it says right here that the TA970XE delivers the goods.
Reasons to choose this board
I've had this board for about two and a half months as of this writing. I've been building my own computers for 13 years, and reviewing parts off and on here all that time--look back several years and you'll find a review of a Super-7 board from me on here. My latest upgrade came out of a need to update to a DDR3 platform on Socket AM3+ to enable me to upgrade to AMD's upcoming "Piledriver" CPU series later in the year. I had been on DDR and AM2+ for a few years. My requirements otherwise were fairly simple: I do a lot of multitasking and a lot of multimedia applications, but I'm not a hardcore gamer. Therefore, SLI or Crossfire video capability wasn't all that important to me. With those needs, a motherboard based on the 970 chipset was in order--the higher-end 990X and 990FX don't really carry much added benefit other than faster SLI or Crossfire.
While researching motherboards, I read a review of Biostar's high-end 990FX board, the TA990FXE, which gets very high marks from both users and reviewers. I also learned that they had a 970 version in the same series, the TA970XE, which is built to the same quality standard--far above that of lower-end Biostar boards. Since the price was right, I decided I'd take a chance on it, even though it hadn't been reviewed yet.
"T-Overclocker?" Are they for real?
This $80 board was going to get a challenge. The CPU that it has to host until Piledriver is a Phenom II X6 "Thuban", whcih draws enough power as it is. This one was a 1035T, the low-end 2.6 GHz model with the locked multiplier. Because of that shortcoming, the CPU can only be overclocked by increasing the CPU/NB frequency on the motherboard. If this Thuban was going to reach its potential, the TA970XE was going to have to get it there in spite of AMD's unhelpful locking.
Yes, they are!
The board itself comes well-equipped for such tasks. It has a new UEFI BIOS that allows a wide range of voltage and frequency adjustments, which allowed me to dial back my memory and HyperTransport speeds to obtain the maximum clock on the northbridge. It reached 3.2 GHz without changing anything at all; then I had to start tweaking. Over a period of a few weeks, tinkering with the settings allowed me to reach a stable 3.6 GHz, at a CPU/NB frequency of 277 MHz, after giving the northbridge an extra 0.1v and the Thuban an extra 0.15. A CoolerMaster Hyper 212+ with two fans keeps temperatures well in hand, even under load, and an 80 Plus Bronze-certified 750W power supply keeps it all going.
A stable 1 GHz overclock, on a locked AMD CPU, with an $80 motherboard...like I said, it delivers the goods!
Features, and things you might look for
Criticisms of this board include the fact that the VRM setup is only a 5-phase (4+1), and the fact that as a 970 chipset, the second video card in a SLI or Crossfire setup would only run at x4, while 990 boards can run at x8 or even dual x16. There is about a 5 percent performance hit because of this. My response would be that anyone who makes the significant investment in a dual video setup should spend the extra money and get a 990 board. The TA990FXE is only $129, for example. As for the VRMs, a 4+1 setup (with good MOSFETs to start with) works fine and can do the job with proper cooling. The TA970XE has a very large heatsink pre-installed on its VRMs, which are first-rate to begin with. You don't get an extra GHz on a ghetto Thuban without that.
Everything else is about what you expect from a 970 motherboard. It does have the advantage of having two PCI slots and four DDR3 DIMM slots (both of which I needed and encouraged me to choose this board). It's loaded with USB ports, including two USB 3.0 ports, supports the new SATA 6.0 Gbps standard, unlocks cores on AMD processors that have them, and supports both older AMD Sempron, Athlon II and Phenom II processors as well as the new FX line, up to the maximum 140W TDP rating. (My 1035T, when overclocked, pulls 139W at load.)
For a single-GPU configuration, you can't do much better than the TA970XE, especially not at the price point this board is often found at. If Biostar was trying to prove they could put out a product that wasn't just bargain-basement fodder, they succeeded.
***Update July 14, 2012***
From time to time on a new platform, I tinker with the settings to see just how far I can go. Last night, I went for another 100 MHz on the overclock, aiming for 3705 MHz at a CPU/NB of 285 MHz. The system boots and is completely stable at the new settings. So this motherboard has delivered a stable overclock of 1.1 GHz, and counting, on the lowest-end Thuban. Stay tuned...