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Techies and PC gamers routinely soup up their systems to maximize performance and appearance. My own computer has been refurbished so many times that I can't even remember when I bought the case.
But at the heart of every home-built PC or system rebuild is a motherboard, and choosing the right one can be difficult. Most of the boards are built around a small number of chip sets, resulting in similar designs that can be hard to differentiate. But the details of motherboard design--the connectors the board comes with, the firmware the manufacturer uses, and even the physical layout of components--are important considerations.
To help you find the best centerpiece for your machine, PC World road-tested 14 state-of-the-art boards for Athlon 64 and Pentium 4 CPUs. Thanks to NVidia's NForce4 chip sets and some new competing chip sets from ATI and Via, PCI Express graphics technology is finally available on both AMD and Intel platforms. That let us select boards with all the technologies you'll need to keep your PC up-to-date: PCI Express (PCIe) graphics, Scalable Link Interface (SLI) graphics, 3-gigabits-per-second Serial ATA (SATA II), and gigabit ethernet.
To make sure that we evaluated all boards on an equal footing, we outfitted each one with the same supporting hardware whenever possible. We selected similarly priced CPUs--a 2.4-GHz Athlon 64 4000+ chip and a 3.8-GHz Pentium 4 570J CPU--for our test setups. All of the Athlon boards were tested with 1GB of DDR400 memory, while the Pentium 4 boards were configured with 1GB of 533-MHz DDR2. Newegg.com, a popular online store for PC gear, lent us the cases, power supplies, hard drives, and memory we used for testing.
The result was a field day for the PC World Test Center--it's not every day that we can get this granular with the guts of a PC. We didn't see large performance differences among the boards, but some patterns did emerge. The Athlon setups performed slightly better and had more features as a group than their P4 counterparts, and the average price of the Athlon boards was lower (see Chart: The Top Ten Motherboards). Though we tested boards built around several different chip sets, our WorldBench 5 and gaming tests revealed no significant performance differences along those lines.
If you're ready to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty under your PC's hood, read on.