Battle of the Boards
Athlon 64 (cont'd)
Not all the NForce boards were loaded SLI models. Epox's $150 EP-9NPA+ Ultra uses the NForce4 Ultra chip set, which supports similar features but omits support for the second graphics board necessary for SLI. The EP-9NPA+ is the prototypical NForce4 Ultra board, implementing exactly what the chip set offers--quite a lot, but nothing more.
The board's performance was middle-of-the-road among the Athlon 64 motherboards in both WorldBench 5 and our gaming tests. You can optimize for more speed via its broad range of overclocking settings (in the PC setup program) and the speed and voltage settings (in the included NTune app).
The EP-9NPA+ Ultra features the cleanest layout of all the Athlon 64 boards, with three unobstructed PCIe x1 slots and no interference between components. While we would have liked a rear-panel FireWire port, the board came with two FireWire headers--a set of pins that lets you connect to a port built into your case or a rear port that fits on an included slot cover. TIP>> Many PC cases include easy-access USB or FireWire ports on the front panel. You'll need a motherboard that has the appropriate headers if you want to take advantage of these ports.
The Epox board's Magic Flash Internet BIOS utility worked well, and the preproduction user guide we received was concise and informative.
Rounding out our Athlon top five is Gigabyte's $195 GA-K8NXP-SLI, the most expensive of the Athlon 64 boards we examined. It provides several extra features calculated to ease the pain of its high price, including a wireless 802.11g adapter and an extra RAID controller that adds four more SATA ports as well as support for introducing a second RAID array. Several of the motherboards we tested augment their SATA setups in this fashion.
The GA-K8NXP-SLI's performance wasn't impressive compared with that of the other Athlon boards we tested, but its build quality did show some exceptional attention to detail. We particularly liked the four walled SATA ports (the other four ports were normal), which make for a bit firmer connection. Overclockers will also appreciate the numerous BIOS speed adjustments, the powerful EasyTune5 monitoring and overclocking software, and the beefy Voltage Regulator slot and module.
We tested two other Athlon boards, but they failed to make our chart. Chaintech's $130 VNF4/Ultra, another NForce4 Ultra board, performed well enough, but it was the only product we tested that lacked FireWire support completely, and its sparse documentation and poor labeling of components made setup more difficult than necessary.
MSI's $135 RS480M2-IL just missed our chart as well. It was the only board we tested that carried ATI's PCIe Athlon 64 chip set, the Radeon Xpress 200. Designed to power inexpensive systems, the RS480M2-IL performed decently in most ways, especially in the gaming tests. However, it lagged in the disk-intensive sections of WorldBench 5, it felt a bit sluggish in our hands-on evaluation, and it lacked the PCIe x1 slots and gigabit ethernet ports included on the NForce4 boards.