Motherboards: Power at the Right Price
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."