Building a Better System
If the idea of building your own PC intrigues you, and you've even scoped out the aisle full of snazzy components at your local computer shop, deconstructing all the specs and picking the right board can seem fraught with peril. But it's really not that tough. We evaluated eight boards with a range of features and prices, and we'll show you what to look for when you're comparing products in the store.
First, some fundamental decisions will narrow your choices: You probably know how fast you want your CPU to be and how much you want to spend on it; you probably also have a good idea of how much RAM you need. Because each motherboard works only with a specific set of processors, this is your first cut. All the boards we tested support a range of either AMD or Intel processors. (Please see the chart at Motherboards: Key to an Ideal PC for more information.) But because we couldn't test every configuration, we picked a few representative ones, broken down into two groups. We chose four loaded boards and tested them with top-of-the-line CPUs and a gigabyte of RAM; we also picked four less-expensive boards with fewer features, and tested them with good second-tier processors and 512MB of RAM.
At the high end, we paired Gigabyte's GA-K8NNXP 940 and Leadtek's WinFast K8NW with AMD's $800, 2.2-GHz 64-bit Athlon 64 FX-51. We tested Intel's Desktop Board D875PBZ and Chaintech's 9PJL2 motherboards with Intel's fastest consumer CPU, the $1000 3.2-GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition. In our economy group, we set a cap of $300 for both board and processor. We paired the MSI 655 MAX-FISR and Soyo SY-P4i865PE Plus Dragon 2 with Intel's $200 2.8-GHz Pentium 4 CPU; we ran the Asus A7V600 and Abit VI7 motherboards with AMD's $150 2.17-GHz Athlon XP 2700+. All of the models we tested fit into a full-size ATX tower. Mini-ATX boards that fit into smaller cases are available, but in this review we focused on full-size models.
Increase Your Memory
From our small sample size, we can't draw comparisons on which chip set is fastest; but since the boards within each category delivered similar results in our tests, we can say that overall system performance depends less on your motherboard and more on CPU and memory.
The motherboard and processor determine the speed and type of memory you must use. But there are different grades of RAM, and they can influence performance and reliability, as well. We chose to use 1024MB of Crucial DDR 400 memory on our high-performance boards, and 512MB of Crucial DDR 400 memory on the budget ones. The Athlon 64 FX-51 CPU required registered DDR memory, which contains a register chip that delays memory information for one clock cycle to help process large amounts of data. Registered memory costs about $450 for 1GB--making it more expensive than a comparable amount of DDR SDRAM--and it's also harder to find. Kingston supplied the registered RAM we used.
We acquired our processors, memory, and motherboards separately, but buying motherboard, CPU, and memory preinstalled eliminates the trauma of installing a processor for the first time and potentially turning a $200 slab of silicon into a useless piece of junk. This typically costs more than stand-alone components, but getting one may be worthwhile if you're worried about frying your CPU.
We selected the Asus A7V600 and the Leadtek WinFast K8NW as our Editor's Picks, based on our evaluation of their features, ease of installation, and documentation. We had no trouble installing Leadtek's board, and its extra features--four Serial ATA connectors, 64-bit hard-drive encryption, and dual LAN--gave it an edge. Although Leadtek's printed documentation doesn't include information about installing the processor, pictures and walk-throughs for the procedure are available from the company's site. Asus's board, meanwhile, offers a nice helping of extras like an integrated Wi-Fi slot and gigabit ethernet support. Its smooth installation and comprehensive documentation were additional factors in our awarding the board an Editor's Pick. The model we tested lacks FireWire ports, but Asus sells a board with that option.
What's in a Chip Set?
After you've settled on the CPU and amount of RAM, your next decision concerns what features you want. A motherboard's chip set provides support for integrated I/O options such as USB 2.0, FireWire, Serial ATA, and 8X AGP.
Developers are incorporating still more functions into upcoming chip sets. For instance, NVidia's new NForce3 250--which should be available by the time you read this--incorporates a firewall. Vendors are also working on support for Azalia, a new audio standard intended to supplant AC'97, and for PCI Express, a new technology that will eventually replace today's PCI (and AGP) parallel buses with a fast serial connection capable of a sustained transfer rate of up to 200 gigabytes per second rather than PCI's 133 GBps.
If you're a gamer, an 8X AGP slot to accommodate the latest graphics cards will be on your wish list. We tested all eight of our boards with ATI's Radeon 9800 Pro card using the 8X AGP interface. If you're planning to use your computer primarily for office applications and older games, integrated graphics chips will do the trick. Our previous tests of PCs with the Intel 865G and ATI Radeon 9100 IGP integrated chip sets showed that such chips hit frame rates half as high as those from even budget-level graphics cards.
On the horizon, however, are chip sets with more-powerful graphics-processing capabilities. Via's K8M800 chip set, which employs integrated graphics and supports AMD's 64-bit processor, has a low-power design that requires fewer fans to cool it.
With one exception, all of the motherboards we reviewed include on-board sound, which is sufficient for most computer tasks. For watching DVDs and listening to music, though, look for a board with a six-channel codec. The audio processing on the boards we tested ranged from Leadtek's and Gigabyte's Realtek ALC658 Audio AC'97 six-channel codec to no sound support at all (in the case of Intel's board). Note that an add-in sound card gives better-quality audio.
Slight Speed Differences
The PC World Test Center evaluated the motherboards by putting them into PCs that were identical except for their motherboard/CPU/RAM combinations. Each test PC had a 120GB Seagate Barracuda 7200 Serial ATA hard drive and an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card. Our analysts ran speed tests on each PC with a set of application scripts that simulate real-world use. As noted earlier, we found no significant performance differences that we could attribute to the motherboards within each category, although of course we saw varying results between the two categories owing to the classes of CPUs and the different amounts of RAM they used.
Predictably, the four relatively expensive motherboards--the ones carrying the Pentium 4 Extreme and Athlon 64 CPUs--did better on our gaming tests. In our test using Unreal Tournament 2003, frame rates for the configurations with the 64-bit AMD Athlon 64 FX-51 CPU hovered around 140, and the boards with the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition posted frame rates around 130. In the less-expensive category, the two boards using the 2.8-GHz Intel CPU performed somewhat better than the two with the Athlon XP 2700+, but all four budget boards produced rates below 100 frames per second. Note, however, that we tested within the classes of motherboards and didn't test high-end CPUs in low-end motherboards (or vice versa), nor did we compare mixed classes of products. You might be able to plug a high-end CPU in one of the low-end boards and get fast performance.
The Importance of Docs
Good documentation can be the difference between a smooth computer-building experience and a nightmare that ends with a fried motherboard. Experienced PC builders may not need much hand-holding, but having decent installation help available is nonetheless critical.
For one thing, terms of manufacturers' warranties vary (visit our online chart for more information), and you're not covered under any of them if you damage the motherboard--for instance, by installing a component incorrectly. This is why documentation is so vital.
Ideally, your documentation should include a big setup poster with a detailed map of the motherboard (although a well-illustrated manual is an acceptable alternative). Gigabyte's color poster is among the best, with step-by-step instructions, clearly labeled jumper settings, and a handy map of the board's layout. The company lists motherboard models by name on its Web site, where you can easily drill down to find drivers, manuals, and compatible components for your board. Leadtek's manual provides a clear map of its motherboard, plus explanations for each part of it, but as for step-by-step installation, you're on your own. MSI's user manual has excellent installation instructions, including illustrations and schematics of the board's parts. Finally, Soyo's thin manual offers the basics, but it doesn't provide sufficient step-by-step directions for novice PC builders.
For additional help and guidance, you can find a wealth of information online, whether in forums, on Usenet, or at vendors' Web sites. For instance, AMD and Intel provide information on their sites regarding how to install a processor.
Putting It All Together
Installing your new board probably won't be hassle-free: In only half of our test cases did installation go without a hitch, and that was thanks largely to the skill of Elliott Kirschling, a senior performance analyst in the PC World Test Center and an experienced PC builder. The other four motherboards threw up some unexpected roadblocks, but none of the problems we encountered proved catastrophic. For instance, Abit's documentation didn't specify which Serial ATA chip is on the motherboard, and we couldn't easily find the right choice on the installation screen. When we picked the wrong Serial ATA chip from the list, we had to start the installation over again.
In case you get stuck and need to talk to a human, many vendors offer phone support, but good luck finding the numbers: Most motherboard makers don't list a support number prominently in manuals or online but instead direct you to send an e-mail to tech support via their Web site or to look in their online forums.
Anatomy of a Motherboard
Close-ups of the Asus A7V600 show (clockwise from top) its Serial ATA connectors; its easy-to-use, color-coded front-panel connectors; and plenty of back-panel inputs.