Motherboards: Power at the Right Price
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.