Jump on that Grenade

A pointless examination of an unusual port array  – The MSI B150m Grenade MicroATX mainboard

I’m not a really exciting guy. I have boring interests and a tendency to dwell on minutiae. I find myself with large chunks of time on my hands to look into things that jab at my brain and turn them over and over until I reach an elusive satisfaction point or fatigue point.

I don’t have much money. That is relevant such that this entire thought exercise is for naught. I will not be buying the product. Not to mention there are countless other products that suffer no such issue warranting a completely unwarranted thought exercise.

Still with me?

I read an article http://www.techspot.com/article/1394-affordable-esports-pc/ about how the new AMD Radeon RX550 budget graphics card could potentially be coupled with the affordable Intel Pentium 4560 CPU to create a relatively cheap, yet still competitive eSports gaming PC. My curiosity was piqued by several factors:

  • I was never sure about the relevance of budget tier graphics processing units or ‘graphics cards’ (GPU) since, if they weren’t pulling smooth frame rates, why accelerate the graphics at all beyond integrated solutions? If you’re getting bumped from 9 frames per second (FPS) to 20 FPS… well… it’s still unplayable. Why?
  • The RX 550 GPU and the Intel Pentium 4560 CPU are both modern, budget offerings and I’m always looking for cheap computer hardware that might prove itself to be a sort of a value sweet spot, which, *spoilers* this might be.
  • How could eSports possibly be played competitively on budget hardware? A couple dropped frames could mean death in heated competition.

So I read the article and perused the benchmarks. As it turns out, many of the most popular eSports games of today (which is a Wednesday) can utilize modern hardware to look super pretty, but rely on basic enough game engines to play well on limited hardware. Not necessarily on old hardware, but on limited hardware.

We’ve frequently plateaued in computing hardware where for a while we will all find ourselves with ‘enough’ computing performance. This is the 7th generation of modern CPUs, at least by Intel’s count, and easily since the 2nd or 3rd generation (Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge) we’ve had what can be considered enough power. People can still use PCs based on Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge tech and not necessarily be aware they’re missing out on the new stuff. Likewise, they might jump from 3rd to 6th or 7th generation gear and it will feel better, but not necessarily perceptibly so. It all depends on what you’re doing with your computer.

As it turns out, eSports titles will run on enough computer, and today’s 7th generation budget hardware is enough. The benchmarks in the article show that DOTA, Counter-Strike, and even Rocket League can take the new sub-100 dollar GPU and 50 dollar CPU and give gamers medium to high graphics settings at full HD resolutions at 55-60+ FPS, which is both playable and frankly, surprising to me.

Why pay any more than that then? Well because eliminating that dip below 60+ FPS all together will make a visible difference and adding features like anti-aliasing will smooth out on screen edges and now the new golden ring is playing games at 4k resolutions for pin sharp fidelity BUT! none of those things are necessities.

Having a gaming PC isn’t even a necessity but that’s not the point! The point is that it is an easier goal to achieve than, seemingly, ever before!

Now, what does any of this have to do with grenades? Is it because games like Counter-Strike, mentioned once, have grenades? Is that the connection? No. It gets much more boring than that I assure you.

In the article, in one of the photos of the test system, the mainboard they used is pictured – the AsRock H110m-HDS, which is a decidedly budget mainboard. However, my brain immediately wondered “Is there a cheaper mainboard or a better value mainboard?” so I hurried over to PCPartPicker.com to find out.

There are cheaper mainboards. The MSI B150m Grenade is Not a cheaper mainboard. It is a few dollars more expensive. But it is based on a chipset with more features which I feel makes the Grenade a better value because it would allow more future expansion making a system built around it a better all-around build. Specifically, the Grenade offers an m.2 port for high speed Solid State Drives, and while that is the opposite of a budget component if there ever was one, it does then become an option in the future to significantly boost the performance of the entire computer in one component swap.

The Grenade Is touted as an enthusiast model, made for gaming, which does leave its sub-60 dollar price slightly suspect. It has fancy branding, and it has lighting FX, both of which are not conventionally budget offerings, and are entirely frivolous, aside from appealing to your own personal aesthetic. However. The Grenade has an unusual back panel port array for a modern desktop computer.

We’re in an era where USB 3.0 ports offer terrific data transfer speeds as well as backward compatibility with any USB peripheral of the past. We’re entering an era where USB-C is going to take over, if we can ever work out how to deal with the sea of dongles and the overwhelming 37+ versions of the so-called universal USB-C port (a redundant reference, I know).

The Grenade features a scant 1 USB 3.1 port and 1 USB-C port, leaving us with a meager 4 additional USB 2.0 ports. And I said to myself, well, obviously, someone really dropped the ball with the port layout and therefore we have this super budget ‘enthusiast’ mainboard. How could they get it so wrong? Why USB 2.0 ports?

And then the wheels kept turning. Why bother with USB 3.0 ports?

Well. Why do we want USB 3.0 ports? We want them for data transfer speeds. They are ten or now with USB 3.1 up to twenty times faster than USB 2.0 ports. If you’re waiting on moving large volumes of data that speed becomes a requirement quickly. Hours of transfer time becomes seconds of transfer time and you can move on with your life. But, for most average people, even gamers, how often are you moving large quantities of data out of your computer or into your computer via physical device and not via the internet? Surprisingly rarely. Maybe backing up your computer, if you’re smart and back up your computer.

Everything you use aside from thumb drives and hard drives is locked in at USB 2.0 speeds because USB 2.0 is enough. Your keyboard, mouse, printer, scanner, your USB audio devices, even your webcam, even your novelty cup warmer, all use the venerable USB 2.0 interface and top out at a theoretical 480 Megabits per second transfer rate. They do not benefit from being plugged into a USB 3.0 port. In fact, on rare occasions, plugging these things into USB 3.0 ports adversely affects their performance. For instance, some USB 3.0 ports will not support peripherals at boot. Sometimes, USB 3.0 ports will introduce electrical noise into audio devices. In super specific cases writing data to USB 2.0 devices over a USB 3.0 port will disrupt the writes. These types of things are rare but they happen.

I considered these things as I wondered why, when other boards feature four to eight USB 3.0 ports, sometimes even with one or two additional USB 3.1 ports, and a USB-C port once in a blue moon, why would this board, in its weird budget-not-budget place that it’s in, have four USB 2.0 ports, and one USB 3.1 port with a USB-C port added for the future?

Because. Because it’s enough.

It’s better than enough. It’s great. It’s everything you need and nothing you don’t and by not having the extra ports added on just in case it shaves cents off the total cost of the board to the manufacturer and in turn to the consumer. It’s got the features, just not an excess of them.

For no reason I can really discern, I’ve studied this mainboard and its curious port array for way, WAY longer than ANYONE should. It made my weird mind curious and I thought about it for a really long time. In fact, the reason this article exists is in the interest of possibility of draining it from my brain in a less gruesome manner than trepanning.

It didn’t work. I probably know too much about this board now. In fact, I want one, even though I do not need one. As much as I love true enthusiast hardware like mainboards going for 200+ dollars with ‘all of the ports’ I think the B150m Grenade is a great board and more importantly a good value to most PC builders. This is an honest position, unspoiled by deals or compensation. It’s just the preoccupation of someone with too much time on their hands.

Wanna build a budget gaming PC? Good place to start.