Motherboards: Power at the Right Price
A new motherboard can provide cool new technologies that your PC might be missing: faster, second-generation SATA connections, which currently reach 3 gigabits per second (gbps); gigabit ethernet; high-definition audio; and even dual-card graphics (SLI or CrossFire).
We evaluated 14 standard-size motherboards by building systems using each board, running our Windows XP-based WorldBench 5 benchmark, and then installing Windows Vista Ultimate to check for compatibility problems.
Rather than make an apples-to-oranges comparison between AMD- and Intel-equipped motherboards, we split our roundup into two groups: seven boards based on AMD's socket AM2 (for use with AMD chips requiring DDR2 memory) and seven boards employing Intel's socket LGA775 (for use with that company's dual-core and quad-core processors). The Intel boards' WorldBench 5 scores were nearly 15 percent better than those of the AMD group, thanks to the advantage the Core 2 Duo CPU holds over the Athlon 64 X2 processor running at the same clock speed, though the Intel chip we tested costs around $200 more. Performance within each group varied little, however, so once you decide whether to choose an AMD or an Intel CPU, selecting a board largely comes down to assessing its features.
See our chart, "Features Set Motherboards Apart."
Our Best Buys
Our top pick among the Intel-based motherboards is the $149 Asus P5N-E SLI. The only model we looked at featuring nVidia's nForce 650i SLI x8 chip set, it did just about everything well. It still has a few minor weaknesses, however; for instance, it provides only three one-eighth-inch analog outputs on the back panel, limiting you to 5.1-channel sound (instead of 7.1) unless you use the rear-panel digital coaxial connection or internal analog audio header. The second-ranked ECS nForce 570 SLIT-A (v5.1) impressed us with a very attractive price ($95), but it uses an older nForce 570 SLI x8 chip set and is the only board in our roundup that lacks FireWire ports of any kind.
In contrast, the $249 Asus P5N32-E SLI, using nVidia's nForce 680 SLI x16 chip set, missed a spot on our chart largely because of its relatively high price.
Among AMD-based boards, Gigabyte's $170 GA-M59SLI-S5 won our Best Buy nod, combining state-of-the-art and legacy peripheral ports with a nice price. A pair of AMD-based boards failed to rank. The $165 Asus M2R32-MVP's performance numbers were a hair slow in a field of fast competitors. And DFI's $190 LanParty UT NF590 SLI-M2R/G, while an excellent overclocker's board, just missed out because it allows a maximum of only 4GB of memory and lacks legacy ports (which may not be a big deal, but other boards continue to offer them).
Power users with AMD leanings should note that overclocking is the raison d'
Despite not making the chart, the Intel DG965WH remains a very good choice for a budget system, where overclocking and high-end graphics aren't as great a concern. The board's integrated GMA X3000 graphics chip ran Vista's Aero interface satisfactorily, and it saves you the expense of buying a graphics card.
Choosing a CPU
Previous testing has shown that Intel's Core 2 Duo has shoved AMD's chips into the backseat in performance. (See "Intel's New Core 2 Duo Processors Run Blazingly Fast in PC World Tests.")
For our tests we used an AMD 2.6-GHz Athlon 64 X2 5200+ that costs about $300. Our Intel test bed used an approximately $500 2.66-GHz Core 2 Duo E6700.
If you want maximum performance, buy a top-of-the-line Core 2 Duo or perhaps a quad-core chip (see "Quad-Cores Need Multithreaded Apps"). If you don't want to pay Formula 1 prices and you're content with mere NASCAR get-up-and-go, opt for an AMD processor or a cheaper, second-tier Intel CPU.
If you're a high-resolution-gaming fan, graphics support should weigh heavily in your motherboard buying decision. Ten of our test models have two PCI Express x16 slots, which together will support two graphics cards. However, the x16 slots on the nVidia 570- and 650i-based boards function at only x8 when operating in dual-graphics-card mode (SLI in this case). Caveat: For a single-card setup, you can use any brand of PCIe graphics board in these systems; but when doubling up, you must use only nVidia cards in SLI motherboards and only ATI cards in CrossFire boards. Dual-card graphics are overkill at 1280-by-1024-pixel resolution or less, but they improve 3D graphics performance as you increase the resolution beyond that. In our test group, the four boards with Intel's P965 chip set all have a single PCIe x16 slot.
Intel's DG965WH is the only motherboard in our roundup with integrated graphics (we tested it, and all boards, with a GeForce 7800 graphics card to level the playing field). Though we recommend getting a discrete graphics board for gaming, integrated graphics are adequate for most other uses. Just make sure you opt for a motherboard that has a PCIe x16 slot so that you can add a graphics card later if necessary.
Shifts in Storage
Every motherboard in the roundup has a floppy-drive connector, and many of them include drivers on floppies. Parallel ATA (PATA) drive support is also universal, though only Asus's P5N-E SLI offers more than one connector. PATA support persists despite Intel's decision to drop it from the P965/ICD8DH chip set--which overlooked the fact that the majority of current internal CD/DVD burners are PATA-based. Not only does no performance advantage accrue from replacing a PATA burner with a same-speed SATA drive, but vendors have been slow to introduce SATA burners. Dropping PATA simply forced P965 motherboard vendors, Intel included, to add an auxiliary PATA controller.
State-of-the-art 3-gbps SATA is universal in the boards in our roundup, as is RAID hard-drive support. Every board offers both RAID 0 (in which data is split, or striped, evenly across drives for increased performance) and RAID 1 (in which one drive's contents are mirrored on another drive). Each motherboard also supports either RAID 5 (data striped across at least three drives, with parity protection) or a combination of RAID 0 and 1 (a striped and mirrored pair requiring four drives).
Most of the motherboards include at least six internal SATA ports. In addition, some boards come with an external SATA (eSATA) connector--a handy feature that lets you hook up an external SATA drive (which is still rare despite being faster than USB or FireWire types). The Asus P5N-E SLI and M2R32-MVP and the Abit AB9 Pro each feature a single back-panel eSATA port, while the Asus Crosshair and the Asus P5N32-E SLI offer two. Of course, each board in our test group allows you to connect eSATA drives using internal SATA connectors with an expansion bracket (such as those that Gigabyte bundled with its boards), but dedicated rear-panel ports save you the hassle.
Different Boards, Similar Chords
Though each motherboard in our roundup uses PCI Express, with its greater data throughput and better bandwidth sharing, all of the motherboards we tested still support the older PCI technology as well. Every board provides four memory slots split between two channels, plus support for up to DDR2 800 memory, except the ECS nForce 570 SLIT-A, which tops out at DDR2 667.
As you might expect, USB 2.0 is ubiquitous: Every board has the capability for at least eight USB 2.0 ports, and most have ten. Generally, half of a board's USB and FireWire ports are externally accessible on the back panel, and the other half are provided in the form of headers (arrays of pins) to which you can attach either expansion brackets or leads for connections that are built in to your computer case.
Several models in our review lack legacy ports (parallel and serial connections) for attaching older printers, PDAs, and scanners. The Abit AB9 Pro and Asus P5N32-E SLI, however, provide serial-port headers. The Asus P5N-E SLI and Intel DG965WH boards couple serial-port headers with back-panel parallel ports.
Gigabit ethernet is universal on all of the motherboards, and half of the models--Abit's AB9 Pro and Fatal1ty AN9 32X, Asus's Crosshair and P5N32-E SLI, DFI's LanParty UT NF590 SLI-M2R/G, Gigabyte's GA-M59SLI-S5, and MSI's K9A Platinum--offer two LAN connections, providing the capability either to connect to two networks or to double the bandwidth. (The nVidia-based boards supply DualNet channel bonding, providing features such as load balancing and TCP/IP acceleration for faster Web browsing.)
Every one of the motherboards we tested delivers extremely high-quality sound, because they all implement Intel's High Definition Audio standard. Hardware that conforms to the standard can produce up to 7.1-channel, 24-bit output (32-bit internal processing) and 192-kilohertz sound. Compared with the older AC'97 specification's maximum output of 20-bit, 48-kHz audio, the newer standard provides substantially better audio quality. To take advantage of the more advanced audio capability, or course, you need to have content that has been encoded at the higher quality level--for example, songs on DVD-Audio or DTS audio discs--as well as software that can play it.
Though all of the boards support the standard, we noted some minor differences in implementation. The Realtek 885 or 883 chip found in the Abit AB9 Pro, the Asus P5N-E SLI, the DFI LanParty UT NF590 SLI-M2R/G, the ECS nForce 570 SLIT-A, the Gigabyte GA-M59SLI-S5, and both MSI Platinum boards is rated at an excellent 106-dB signal-to-noise ratio. That ratio is a very good indicator of the overall quality of the digital-analog/analog-digital converters; a high number means you'll hear less background noise during quiet musical passages or when cranking the line or input volume. The ADI1988 chip in the Asus Crosshair and M2R32-MVP boards provides a signal-to-noise ratio of 105 dB, while the chips in the other boards are rated at 95 dB. (Note that those numbers are for playing 24-bit audio--expect about 6 dB less during normal 16-bit usage.)
If you peruse our chart, "Features Set Motherboards Apart," you might notice the low number of slots, especially PCI ones. With multichannel audio, FireWire, and SATA now integrated onto most motherboards, the need for slots has diminished. The average user will probably never install anything beyond a graphics card or a modem, and the latter is readily available in PCIe x1 form. That said, numerous advanced audio, video-capture, FireWire 800, and other specialty cards are still PCI-based, so if your needs are fairly high-end, keep the number of PCI slots in mind.
All of the boards also provide extensive BIOS overclocking features, except for Intel's DG965WH. Intel marks its CPUs and buses at the speed it wants them to run, and if you want guaranteed stability, you should probably run them at those specified speeds. All of the other boards have such overclocking options as the abilities to run the CPU and bus faster, and to increase voltages to keep components stable at the faster speeds. The Abit Fatal1ty AN9 32X and the Asus Crosshair offer exceptional tweakability--the Crosshair even has a fan-speed boost.
Working With the Boards
In our tests Windows Vista ran successfully and the Aero interface functioned perfectly with all the boards. Asus's Crosshair and M2R32-MVP, however, each required a BIOS update to alleviate long periods of seeming inactivity as we installed Vista.
Under Vista, we also experienced some minor "unknown device" issues--mostly with some boards' Advanced Configuration and Power Interface, which controls hibernation, sleep, and other power-management features.
Utility and tweaking software was another sticky issue under Vista. The majority of the bundled Windows-based monitoring and overclocking apps wouldn't install or run on our test systems. The Sapphire had no Windows-based utilities, while Asus's Probe II monitoring and AI Boost overclocking programs ran well, even though the main setup program didn't (we had to install the utilities manually). Motherboard-tweaking software often undergoes a lengthy revision process before all the bugs are worked out.
One noticeable trend with the more expensive boards is the use of heat-pipe cooling, which draws heat away from critical components and toward additional heat sinks strategically located near the CPU fan. By avoiding the use of multiple fans, this method offers a clever way to reduce noise and still keep components cool. The Abit Fatal1ty AN9 32X, the Asus Crosshair and P5N32-E SLI, the MSI P965 Platinum, and both Gigabyte boards feature this innovation.
Our complaints about board layout are minimal, and most relate to one-time setup chores. The IDE connectors on the MSI K9A Platinum and the Asus M2R32-MVP and Crosshair sit near their 24-pin power connectors, which makes inserting both cables hard. Cables connected to the Asus Crosshair's PATA port and two of its SATA ports interfere somewhat with the insertion of long PCIe graphics cards such as the GeForce 7800 we used in our lab tests.
We were of two minds about the floppy-disk and internal SATA connectors on the DFI LanParty UT NF590 SLI-M2R/G. They lie parallel to the board, extending off the edge. This orientation made attaching the cables a bit of a trick, though once connected the cables are tucked nicely out of the way. The Asus P5N32-E SLI incorporates a similar design with its six SATA ports, as do the Asus P5N-E SLI and the Sapphire Pure CrossFire PC-AM2RD580 with their IDE connectors. The ECS nForce 570 SLIT-A's front-panel header (for connecting USB ports, for example) lacked any indication of where to attach the power and reset buttons, activity LEDs, and so on. The worst design flaw we spotted, however, was the Sapphire's use of first-generation, rimless SATA connectors; they produce a worrisomely loose connection compared with the rimmed types used on every other board.
If you're into bling or cool workbench diagnostic features, several motherboards stand out. The Abit Fatal1ty, the Asus Crosshair, and the Sapphire Pure CrossFire PC-AM2RD580 are all decked out with LEDs that gleam in the dark. The back-mounted blue LCD of the Asus Crosshair presents BIOS messages and other information, and is very snazzy, as are the backlit reset and power buttons on the board itself. That board also gets major props for lighting the labels of the back-panel USB, eSATA, and other ports, which makes connecting peripherals in the dark much easier. The DFI has similar controls, though they're not as spiffy looking. Asus also offers a nice touch with all of its boards: The QConnector is a removable adapter that you can pull out of the case and hold in your hand while you attach power, reset, and speaker wires and plug the adapter into a motherboard header. It's much easier than fumbling around inside a dark, cramped case.
While you're examining motherboard options, also consider what other system parts you'll need in order to upgrade or build your own PC. For step-by-step guides and details on all of the major system components, see "Best PC Upgrades."
Quad-Cores Need Multithreaded Apps
For maximum performance when multitasking or when using demanding, multithreaded applications, quad-core CPUs such as Intel's Core 2 Extreme QX6700 or the more consumer-oriented Core 2 Quad processors offer some performance benefits. Quad-core chips, for example, enable video encoders to process multiple frames simultaneously.
On the other hand, if you tend to spend your day simply switching between tasks that don't use the CPU concurrently--say, sending e-mail and trolling eBay--PC World's lab tests reveal that four cores offer no real advantage over two; even two cores help only in certain cases, such as when you're backing up a hard drive or burning a DVD in the background while word processing.
For anyone playing games or manipulating audio or video on a regular basis, however, having four cores can potentially deliver real benefits. We qualify that statement because, aside from a few forthcoming games such as Unreal Tournament 2007, the list of optimized applications is short, dominated by expensive offerings such as the latest versions of Adobe's Premiere Pro and Encore DVD, Autodesk's 3D StudioMax, and Steinberg's Cubase 4. Nevertheless, additional multithreaded software titles are on the way, and eventually every activity that can benefit from multiple-core processing will do so. Intel's current quad-core desktop chips work quite nicely in any LGA775-socket-based motherboard, including all of the ones in this roundup, so you can upgrade at any time. Unfortunately, AMD has been mum on its plans for supporting socket AM2 (the current AMD motherboard socket for its DDR2-based CPUs) with single-die, quad-core CPUs.
What AMD has announced and shipped is a quasi quad-core product known as Quad FX, which is really two dual-core Athlon 64 X2 CPUs on a dual AMD socket 1207 motherboard using a slightly revamped nVidia nForce 680a chip set (such as the Asus board pictured above).
Our WorldBench 5 suite of tests doesn't currently include enough apps that take full advantage of a quad-core CPU for this technology to affect test results significantly, but WorldBench 6, now in beta, will. The Quad FX generally fared no better than a similarly configured PC using AMD's Athlon 64 FX-62. See "AMD Releases Its 4x4 Platform, New FX CPUs" for more details.
For the time being, quad-core sounds sexy, but dual-core is the sweet spot for the majority of users. Early adopters can elect to buy quad-core processors now and see better performance with the few optimized applications.