Battle of the Boards
Overall, the Athlon 64 boards impressed us with their clean layouts, rock-solid stability, and rich feature sets--especially the NForce4 units. On average, the Athlon motherboards are about $35 cheaper than their Pentium 4 rivals--a prime consideration when it comes time to hit the parts store.
TIP>> All of the Athlon 64 boards we gathered for this roundup utilize AMD's latest socket 939. The company's 64-bit CPU comes in other pin-count flavors as well: socket 754 for less-expensive, single-memory-channel Athlon 64 processors, and socket 940 for the Athlon 64 FX-51 and AMD Opteron server CPUs. However, socket 939 is the best choice for mainstream machines.
An NForce4 SLI board, MSI's $190 K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI, turned in the best scores overall on our performance tests, with a great showing in WorldBench 5 and even better results in our gaming tests. NVidia's feature-rich NForce4 SLI chip set was the centerpiece of this and several of the other SLI-equipped AMD motherboards in our roundup. We didn't test the SLI boards in their dual-graphics mode, which lets you dramatically boost performance in some games by installing a second graphics board. TIP>> For more on the performance benefits of SLI, click here.
Like other NForce4 boards, the K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI offers an integrated gigabit ethernet port and SATA II support. The newer SATA standard raises the maximum transfer rate from 150 megabytes per second to 300 MBps. We haven't yet tested a SATA drive that supports the new standard, but SATA II support might prove to be a useful bit of future-proofing for when those drives arrive.
MSI's K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI is sedately attractive, with dashes of color here and there, and has a generally logical and well-spaced layout. MSI's documentation is adequate, though it can be a little convoluted. The trio of Windows utilities that ships with the board--MSI Core, NVidia's NTune, and MSI Live Update 3--does a fine job of letting you monitor the hardware, overclock CPU and bus speeds, and update the system's BIOS and drivers.
Unfortunately, the MSI board was the only one on our features chart that lacked a PCIe x1 slot. There's a dearth of PCIe x1 cards right now--we found only a few modems and LAN cards--but not having the slot could eventually prove annoying. That and a couple of other design quirks kept us from giving the MSI board a higher star rating.
For example, like several of the other boards we tested, MSI's board has a few tall, easily bendable capacitors that sit uncomfortably close to the CPU socket. Those capacitors and other components around the CPU socket prevent the installation of some third-party heat sinks. TIP>> If you're buying a big heat sink for your CPU, check with the manufacturer to make sure it will fit your motherboard.
Another NForce4 SLI board, Asus's $185 A8N-SLI Deluxe, took home our Best Buy on the Athlon side. It tied for the top spot in our WorldBench 5 tests, though it lagged a bit in the gaming trials. The board comes with a whopping eight SATA II connectors, two gigabit ethernet ports, and an unusually large software bundle that includes InterVideo's WinDVD Creator Suite (other Asus boards have this as well). Excellent documentation, along with the PC Probe monitoring software and Live Update BIOS updating software that accompany the other Asus boards, rounds out the deal.
The A8N shares an unusual feature with the other Asus boards in this review: spoken POST codes. POST codes are meant to help you diagnose problems with your PC, such as bad memory, or an improperly connected video card. Normally they're a series of beeps or a number on an integrated LED that you have to look up in your manual. But thanks to an integrated speech controller, the Asus boards use your system speaker to tell you in plain language what the problem is (or which stage of the boot process caused the problem).
The other Asus Athlon board we tested--the $145 A8V-E Deluxe--used Via's new K8T890 chip set, which turned out to be an adequate performer, producing WorldBench 5 and gaming scores right in line with the competition. The A8V-E Deluxe fell a bit short of its NForce4 counterparts in terms of SATA and RAID support, offering only two SATA ports and RAID 0 and RAID 1. What the board lacks in drive support, however, it makes up for in networking, with an integrated 802.11g wireless adapter in addition to its gigabit ethernet port. It even includes a table-top external antenna.
We had no other complaints about the board--especially since it's nearly as fast as (and about $50 cheaper than) its NForce4 rivals, and its layout was one of our favorites among the Athlon 64 products. The PCIe x16 slot is mounted in the second slot position, to eliminate interference with the DIMM slots and to make room for a PCIe x1 slot on the right. TIP>> Many high-end and midrange graphics boards use fans large enough to prevent you from installing an expansion card in the adjacent slot. Plan accordingly when you're shopping for components.