Firm Foundations (Motherboard Test

Published Date
01 - Nov - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Nov - 2006
 
Firm Foundations (Motherboard Test
Motherboards do not bask in the limelight the way CPUs and graphics cards do, despite their obvious importance. Simply put, your motherboard is a meeting ground for all your hardware. Thankfully, perceptions have evolved, and a motherboard is no longer just a large PCB that you plonk your CPU on to. A quick look at some of the boards in the following test will reinforce this point.

The sheer number of features that are crammed into high-end boards is amazing, and the good news is, motherboards are offering great value for money, thanks to falling prices. Manufacturers have also understood their markets better, and boards based on the latest chipsets no longer no longer command the premium they once did! Manufacturers have realised the need to target segments, and make sure the latest technologies are available to all price segments-so you can get affordable high-performance chipsets, albeit with lower feature counts!

That said, motherboards still aren't first priority, and your purchase decision is based solely on the CPU you choose. For example, an AMD AM2 processor obviously needs an AM2-based motherboard, and so on. The good news is there's a plethora of options out there even after fixing on a particular class of processor-not only manufacturer options, but chipset options as well. Finding motherboards that suit your needs is easy; choosing the right one, however, will be a royal pain! That's where we come in…

The first distinction you have to make is choosing between an Intel and AMD processor. Now the plot thickens. You have five options when it comes to chipsets-Intel, ATI, NVIDIA, SiS and VIA, the first three names being the bigger manufacturers.
So as not to confuse you, we've decided to serve you the motherboards we received in two different courses, and since "A" comes before "I", we'll take a look at all the AMD-based motherboards first.

Motherboards For The AMD Platform
Socket AM2 (940-pin)
As mentioned, all newer AMD processors come on a 940-pin, AM2 socket configuration. Don't confuse these 940-pin processors from AMD's earlier server range of processors-the Opterons-which supported DDR memory and also had 940 pins. They're incompatible with socket AM2.

AM2 motherboards support the entire Athlon AM2 processor line, from the humble 3600 to the fiery FX-62; no need of any BIOS updates at all! NVIDIA is once again at the forefront for the AMD platform, and their nForce 5 series of motherboards are to the AM2 processors what nForce 4 was to the Socket 939 processors.

The nForce 5 series is headed by the dual-x16 lane SLI-ready 590SLI chipset with dual x16 PCI express slots-very suitable for games, or those interested in high-end processors. The nForce 570SLI is positioned as a lower-end chipset for the gamer on a budget, and supports all the high-end features that the 590SLI does, with the exception that its PCI-Express lanes operate at half the bandwidth (x8 mode) while in SLI (multi-GPU) mode. Then there are the 570Ultra (the non-SLI 570 chipset), and the lower-end 550 and 510 chipsets.

Regular features such as the presence of additional Serial ATA ports and USB headers, expansions, etc., is never going to be a problem with motherboards based around these chipsets, simply because they're primarily high-end offerings, and so come fully loaded with almost every conceivable feature. Some manufacturers will, of course, include more features than others, which basically means a price tradeoff; others provide a stripped-down version of the same chipset, but for a much lower price. Whatever the strategy adopted, the chipset remains the same, along with all its abilities or lack of them.

nForce 5 chipsets are feature-laden just as the nForce 4s were a generation earlier, and NVIDIA's been busy adding up the goodie count on these chipsets. We received boards based on the high-end 590SLI and 570SLI chipsets.

The mid- and lower-range AM2 chipsets and motherboards based around them are scarce, and we received a solitary board based on NVIDIA's M1697, which is a mid-range solution.
 
Features
We received four motherboards based on nForce 590SLI chipsets-one each from ASUS, MSI, Gigabyte, and Biostar.

The ASUS Crosshair (their Premium 590SLI offering) immediately comes across as something an enthusiast would want. The board comes with an LCD display on the rear panel that gives you a POST display, helping debug any compatibility issues. Then there are the CMOS Reset, Power On/Off and Restart buttons hardwired on the board, with attractive LEDs that light them up. Great for a windowed cabinet, and a boon for enthusiasts who've spent a lot of time shorting pins and using jumpers. So heavily adorned is the PCB that ASUS couldn't provide onboard sound with the board, but it provides an 8-channel soundcard that fits into the PCI-E (x1) slot. The only gripe with all ASUS boards is their graphics card retention mechanism, which looks tacky and doesn't hold the card firmly.

The Crosshair is built around an eight-phase power design-well-endowed to stand the rigours of overclocking, and ASUS has used solid-state capacitors around the CPU area-which they call "EL-Capless" design. And overclock you can, with the option to increase the CPU multiplier ratio to 25x. You'll need an FX series processor to be able to tinker around here, as the other Athlon processors come multiplier-locked. Even the communication speed between the Northbridge and Southbridge can be tweaked all the way up to 400 MHz (200 MHz is default). The CPU bus speed can also be set to 400 MHz (default is 200 MHz). Hypothetically, a multiplier ratio of 15x with a default speed of 200 MHz will have that processor churning at 3000 MHz. Storing and loading multiple BIOS settings is also possible, and this saves you the time spent tweaking the BIOS every time you have a freeze-up. Choosing profiles is hassle free, and you can overclock whenever you startup, by simply selecting an overclocked profile.

The Biostar Tforce 590SLI has the most innovative-looking bundle we've seen in a while. All the connectors came in a black nylon casing, while the mic and headphone (single earbud type, Bluetooth-style) came in a small black box. Also present were a number of adapters with which you can charge your cell phone using any one of this board's USB ports. While not a new concept, it's commendable, and we rather liked the little extra effort Biostar put in here.

Although the board itself looks good, with flashy colours, we found that the CPU's heatsink kept interfering with the memory installed in the first DIMM. We actually had to remove the heatsink, install the memory, and then install the heatsink again! On a more technical note, we were pleased to see high-quality solid-state capacitors used liberally around the CPU socket area, instead of the electrolyte capacitors normally used on most boards.

There are dynamic overclocking profiles (V6, V8 and V12) that allow up to 30 per cent dynamic overclocking. Manual overclocking is possible as well. The Tforce had one peculiarity-memory voltage cannot be increased past 2.2 volts, unless you use a jumper on the board; and then your memory voltage will be stuck at 2.3 volts. A very peculiar trait for what is positioned as an enthusiast/overclocker board.

Gigabyte's GA-M59SLI-S5 was a pretty solid looking board, well built and reasonably laid out (not as good as the ASUS Crosshair, though). No complaints, except that larger coolers (compared to the stock AMD cooler) may interfere with the installation of memory in the first DIMM. We prefer all the connectors (24-pin, ATA and floppy) to be bunched together at one end of the board, mainly to reduce clutter from around the middle of the PCB-Gigabyte doesn't disappoint here!

This Gigabyte board also sports an attractive-looking heatpipe solution. You'll find three PCI-Express slots, which look like x16 slots at first glance, but the one in the middle is an x4 slot. Due to the proximity, installing a graphics card in one slot renders the adjacent slot unusable, though this is a problem you'll see with most boards today. Gigabyte provides decent automatic overclocking support via the MB Intelligent Tweaker. The board frequency can be adjusted from 100 MHz all the way up to 500 MHz. Add to that the voltage tweaking available, and the control over multiplier ratios, and you have a lot of overclocking potential with this board.


ASUS Crosshair, A combination of looks, features, and performance

The MSI K9N Diamond is a premium offering, and one look at the layout and features on offer will show you why. This motherboard also features an integrated Creative Audigy class sound solution, which is something you'll love if you're an audio enthusiast. We didn't have any of the heatsink-memory problems with the K9N Diamond, and we liked the layout of the connectors as well. MSI also uses a rather simple retention mechanism for the graphics slot, and it's an absolute breeze to insert and remove a video card from any of the MSI boards. The SATA ports are also not in-line with the first PCI-Express slot, which shows thoughtful design, because we've seen some longer cards like the GeForce 7900s, 7950s and Radeon X1800 and X1900 series actually interfere with the SATA ports. Though we noticed that MSI uses mostly electrolytic capacitors around the CPU region-not good for longevity-we found that it had the best layout amongst the high-end offerings.

The K9N Diamond features MSI's Dual "Core Cell," which equates to good automatic overclocking. The BIOS is by American Megatrends Inc. (AMI), and has enough options for decent manual overclocking. However, it's just not in the same league as the 590SLI boards from ASUS and Biostar as far as overclocking goes. 

There were two AM2 motherboards based around NVIDIA's nForce 570SLI chipset, the Gigabyte GA-M57SLI-S4 and MSI's K9N Platinum.

The layout of the Gigabyte 570SLI is similar to that of its bigger brother. It doesn't sport a heatpipe solution but uses a smaller heatsink to cool the chipset. Gigabyte uses a lot of electrolyte capacitors around the CPU region of this board. We also noted that the CPU gets a 4-pin connector instead of the 8-pin connectors on the 590SLI chipset-based boards. Most processors don't require the extra four pins, and our FX-62 was running happily on 4-pin ATX power even on the 8-pin boards. Once again, the memory-CPU heatsink battle ensued, though the Tforce 590SLI was by far the biggest offender. Overclocking options on this board was pretty similar to its bigger brother; Gigabyte hasn't removed any of the tweaking options.

The MSI K9N "Platinum" plays smaller brother to the "Diamond," and also gives up 16 PCI-Express lanes to it, featuring two x8 lanes for SLI operation. This motherboard has a very clean and no-nonsense layout, no extra glitter, just an attractive aluminium heatsink with "MSI" etched on the centre in silver. There's a simple chrome-plated heatsink covering the mofsets around the I/O panel. The SATA and other ATA ports are thoughtfully placed, and adequate spacing between the memory banks means your RAM will get adequate cooling even while running gruelling applications. There is adequate space around the CPU socket, and you'll be surprised how much difference even a few millimetres here and there makes. MSI provides three PCI slots, and the best part is that all of them are very useable even after installing a display card.

MSI provides a healthy CPU overclock from 200 MHz default to 425 MHz, in 0.5 MHz increments. All the usual HT, memory and PCI-Express tweaks are present in full force, and we can safely recommend this board to all but the most hardcore of overclockers.
Comparing the layout of theses two boards, we decided the K9N SLI Platinum zooms ahead.

There was another motherboard from MSI-the MSI K9NU Neo V, which, due to its price, falls in a slot below the other MSIs available. It's also based around a non-SLI/CrossFire chipset, and was just what we needed… a bit of the sedate, the mundane, after all the scorchers before it!

Typically, entry-level solutions feature onboard video, which is missing on this board, so you'll need a graphics card to set it up. The Neo V is built around NVIDIA's M1697 chipset (ALi 1697, as it was known before NVIDIA's takeover). The Neo V is no larger than any of the other boards, but is still somewhat of a surprise, because we're used to entry-level solutions being mostly Micro-ATX. The layout of the Neo V is decent-lots of space around the CPU socket and memory region. A bit of overclocking is possible, and this board has the core cell logic onboard.

Performance
We found pretty even scores among the AM2 boards, and even more surprising was the fact that the nForce 570SLI boards were at times neck and neck with the higher-end 590SLI based boards. This goes to show that the 590SLI is only better for those who just have to have a top-end board, or are planning on SLI-ing two high-end cards (say two 7900GTs and above). With a single graphics card under the hood, things remain interesting, and it's impossible to discern which chipset is which by looking at the scores. We also noted that both the Gigabyte boards lag behind the contenders from MSI and ASUS.

If you'll take a peek at our table, you'll see one board that's pretty consistent across all tests, and emerges with quite a few top scores-the feature loaded and attractive Crosshair from ASUS. With great performance, immense overclocking potential, reasonable future proofing and looks to die for, the Crosshair emerges a winner, we're giving it Gold-our Digit Best Buy Gold award. The Best Buy Silver goes to the MSI K9N Platinum (an nForce 570SLI based board). A well laid out, no-nonsense performer, this was the only AMD-based motherboard to cross the 9000 mark in our PC Mark 2005 graphics test suite. The NVIDIA M1697 also merits mention here-though not amongst the award winners, it kept pretty close throughout the tests, and with a price tag of Rs 4,500, this board makes quite a sweet offering if you're planning the upgrade to AM2.

How We Tested
We had a mammoth four test beds running for this month's motherboard shootout-two AMD-based test beds and two Intel-based. Note that for motherboards with onboard video, we didn't use a graphics card, and used the onboard solution instead.

The test beds are as listed below.

Windows XP with Service Pack 2 was our OS of choice. As always, the benchmarks are broadly divided into real-world and synthetic. Synthetic benchmarks represent applications that simulate conditions that stress test certain PC subsystems, and finally display a "score" that is usually numeric, and can be used to quantifiably compare performance.

Real-world benchmarks are individual applications that, by their very nature, stress out certain components of the computer's subsystem. For example, games will severely stress the graphics, memory and CPU subsystems (in that order), while video encoding is processor-dependant.

The synthetic benchmarks were:

PC Mark 2005: A very standard benchmark today, PC Mark has a complete suite of tests designed to stress out individual components in turn. We used the latest version available.

SiSoft Sandra 2007 Engineer: Another industry-wide standard benchmark, SiSoft runs individual, modular tests for each subsystem, that is, memory, processing, storage, etc., and the results are obtained from each benchmark.

3D Mark 2005: The gamers' benchmark from Future Mark Corp., the people behind the PC Mark series. We used 3D Mark 2005 instead of 3D Mark 2006 because the latter is more graphics-heavy and less dependant on other subsystems, and we wanted to notice some disparity in the tests, since the subjects were motherboards and not graphics cards.

Our real-world tests included a video encoding test. We used a test file (100 MB VOB), and encoded it to DivX using the default settings. We used version 6.2 of DivX Encoder. This is primarily a CPU subsystem test.

Our next benchmark saw us loading the first level-"Training"-of Far Cry, and noting down the time taken to load the game. We used a fresh installed copy each time, and used version 1.32 of the game. This test stresses the hard drive, that is, the storage subsystem.

Finally, we used Doom 3's inbuilt time demo and recorded the frames per second that each card gave us. The first scores were disregarded, and an average of the next three scores was taken as our final figure. This gives us a good idea of what the video subsystem is capable of.

Socket 939
Until a few months ago, before the Core 2 Duos, AMD was sitting pretty with their Athlon 64 processors, and had torn Intel's offerings to bits. However, Socket 939 is no longer a high-end or really sought-after platform.

The main reason for Socket 939's demise is the industry-wide shift to DDR2 memory. While the reasons for the shift and the causes for AMD's adoption of the same aren't in this article's purview, it's worth noting that DDR memory is no longer a manufacturing priority, and stocks should dry up over the next year.

At the very outset, Socket 939 doesn't make a very future-proof buy, simply because both processors and memory for the platform will not be available after a while (we give Socket 939 another eight months tops)!

The only scenario that would garner votes for a socket 939-based system in our opinion is if you are on an unshakeable low budget, or simply want a cheap PC which you do not plan to upgrade-a new user making his first foray into the world of personal computing. Socket 939 makes a decent buy for extremely value conscious users, as they get decent performance on a shoestring budget, sacrificing, of course, on the other fronts we mentioned.

Features
The Xpress 3200 chipset was a latecomer for socket 939, and was intended as ATI's counter to the nForce 4 SLI32 chipset that NVIDIA had released at the time. The Xpress 1600 differs only in the number of PCI-Express lanes it offers, that is, 16 as opposed to 32 for the Xpress 3200. These chipsets support CrossFire (ATI's multi-graphics counter to NVIDIA's SLI). With the gaining popularity of AM2, even high-end Socket 939 motherboards such as these have had price slashes; making even these ageing DDR-based solutions seem a tad more attractive.

The ASUS A8R32-MVP Deluxe is based around the Xpress 3200 chipset from ATI. A very well-laid-out motherboard, with loads of space between memory DIMMs, and all the space you require to install a large heatsink-fan. It's feature rich as well-the two PCI-Express slots are capable of simultaneous x16 operation. There is sufficient spacing between the two PCI-E slots to accommodate even the largest of double-slot graphics cards.


ASUS A8R-MPV, ASUS' Budget CrossFire offering

The board makes quite a strong point for itself as a quality performance product, but isn't future-proof due to the processors and memory for this platform becoming extinct. There's no nifty chipset heatsink on this one, and unlike the nForce 4 chipset, which was a single chip solution, the Xpress 3200 solution on the A8R32-MVP Deluxe bears a Northbridge and Southbridge chip.

The A8R32-MVP Deluxe is an overclocker's delight, and ASUS advertises this right on the box. The BIOS options are numerous, and the HT (HyperTransport) speed can be bumped up to insane levels-we tried overclocking our board and were able to get a very respectable 600 MHz boost to a 1.8 GHz AMD 64 3000 processor. The board supports aggressive CPU and memory voltage increases, which is necessary to overcome the limitations of overclocking on stock voltages.

The ASUS A8R-MVP is the smaller brother of the Deluxe version above, and just a peek at both the boards will tell you why. The layout is decent for a single graphics solution, but using this board for a CrossFire setup could pose a problem due to insufficient spacing between the graphics slots. The build quality of the components on the A8R-MVP is good, but again, the departure from the Deluxe version is apparent.

We received two motherboards based on ATI's RS 482 chipset, one each from Sapphire and Axper. Sapphire, best known for their Radeon-based graphics cards, are somewhat new to the Indian market, while Axper is a new entrant into the motherboard arena, and this is the first time we've received motherboards from them. The RS 482 chipset features a decent onboard graphics solution-ATi's X300, which is a Direct X 9.0 compliant solution. The onboard graphics solution will share memory (up to 256 megabytes of it), and is not really recommended for gaming.


ASUS A8R3-MPV Deluxe, The Best of the 939 boards

Both these boards support dual-channel memory; however, you just get two DIMMs, unlike the other boards which sport four. Both sport rudimentary overclocking in their respective BIOSes, although we found the Sapphire board a bit more responsive to tweaks. In terms of layout, there's nothing much to complain about, and the Micro-ATX form factor means there's that much less room to play around with placements anyway.

We also received an MSI motherboard based on the GeForce 6150 chipset, which integrates a Geforce 6150 graphics controller onboard. For those who don't know, this chipset is a slightly stripped down Geforce 6200 core, which was the entry level chipset of NVIDIA's Geforce 6 series of graphics cards. With decent graphics performance for everyday applications, and the option to house the most powerful graphics cards via its PCI-Express slot, all audiences can be satisfied.

Performance
Our performance leaders were the duo from ASUS, their A8R32-MVP deluxe and the A8R-MVP. One of the reasons for this victory is the fact that the other 939 boards were onboard graphics solutions, which makes it mandatory for us to test them as such. These two boards were tested on a 7900GTX graphics card, which is at least 20 times more powerful than any onboard solution that has ever been around.

Nonetheless, the Digit Best Buy Gold award goes to the ASUS A8R-MVP, which manages to skim ahead of its bigger brother-the ASUS A8R32-MVP Deluxe-the winner of our Digit Best Buy Silver award.

The Memory Question
While deciding on a motherboard, there is the perennial headache of choosing matching memory. Of course, much of your memory decision rests on choice of socket, and DDR will work fine with Socket 939 AMD processors, while AM2 processors and all Intel's 775 LGA CPUs demand DDR2. However even in the two classes-DDR and DDR2-you've got a lot of choosing to do!

Intel processors (Pentium 4 / D / Core 2 Duo) are basically memory bandwidth sensitive (read: MHz) due to their architectures. Look for memory with higher speeds rather than paying more for low latencies.

So what would be good memory for a Core 2 Duo? Practically, a processor cannot demand more data from memory than what its FSB bandwidth allows. This holds true for Intel processors only (AMD 64s and their ilk have the memory controller integrated on the CPU die, so the concept of FSB is absent). Figuratively, for an FSB of 1066 MHz, the bandwidth would be (1066 x 32 bits)/8 = 4264 MBps. If we consider that memory should be twice as fast (due to latencies involved), DDR2 667 would offer a bandwidth of (667 x 64)/8 = 5336 MBps. In case of dual-channel, this would be (5336 x 2 = 10672 MBps), or roughly two and a half times higher than the FSB bandwidth. Faster memory is available (DDR2 800 and DDR2 1000 MHz), but it seems all that additional bandwidth isn't doing much more except costing more. We recommend you stick with DDR2 667 for now for any Intel-based rig, go for more memory, but not faster memory, if you need more performance. Opt for higher speeds only if you plan to do a lot of aggressive overclocking-say 3.2 GHz and above for a Core 2 Duo processor.

With AMD processors, their integrated memory controller means that not only do they scale better with speed (MHz) increments than their Intel counterparts, they show steeper performance increments with lower-latency memory. Kind of a double-edged sword considering prices, and the fact that performance-wise, speed and latency are inversely proportional. But bear in mind that AMD processors are much more sensitive to both latency and bandwidth, so you'll need faster memory here.

Socket 939 performs optimally with DDR 400 MHz memory; try and get as low a latency as your budget allows. For AM2-based processors, a general rule of thumb is to balance out the speed and latency of the RAM you're buying, else your bill will skyrocket. Opt for DDR2 667 MHz memory in the latency range of 4-4-4-10. While lower latencies are possible, as are higher clocked parts, the performance increment doesn't justify the extra you'll shell out. For example, 2 GB of low-latency DDR2 800 MHz memory will cost you in excess of Rs 16,000. DDR2 800 MHz only makes sense if you are pairing it with a fast processor, say a 2.4 GHz dual-core AMD 64 at the very least.

MOTHERBOARS FOR the Intel Platform
We received for review a total of 17 boards that support Intel CPUs. Seven were from MSI, six from Gigabyte, and there were one each from ASUS, ASRock, ECS, and Intel.

In terms of chipsets, most support the older Pentium 4s and the latest Core 2 Duos as well. ATI, Intel, NVIDIA, VIA and SiS are some of the major chipset providers. However, all but two of the boards we tested were based on Intel chipsets (P965 Express, G965 Express, 975X Express, 945G Express and 945GZ Express)-the exception was the NVIDIA nForce 4 SLI chipset. 

The older 945 chipset is almost at the end of its life cycle, but since the Indian market is driven by value for money, you will still find a lot of cheaper boards using this chipset. Vendors are even providing BIOS revisions to enable the 945 series of motherboards to  support Core 2 Duo. Even though nForce 4 SLI-based motherboards don't support the latest Core 2 Duo family, their prices are still very high compared to other motherboards. The 965s-designed for the Core 2 Duos CPU-are gradually trickling into the market, and it will take a while before they replace the 945s. With vendors already declaring support for Intel's upcoming quad-core CPUs, the 965s are your best bet for a future-proof solution. The 975X chipset, though designed for Pentium D CPUs, still support Core 2 Duos-thanks to BIOS revisions-and despite their age, are good performers.

All the chipsets featured RAID solutions, integrated by the chipset manufacturer. While Intel chipsets have their Matrix Storage solution, NVIDIA chipsets feature NV RAID, which will let you span your RAID set up across SATA and IDE drives.

In order to give you a clearer picture, we came up with three groups for all these motherboards: all boards based on the 975X and nForce 4 SLI chipset were grouped together because they have multi-GPU support. The 945G/GZ-based boards were grouped together, as they support Pentium D CPUs (with a few exceptions). The P965/G965-based motherboards were classified in the same group.

Intel P965 and G965
Features
We tested seven motherboards that were powered by the 965 chipset, from ASUS, Gigabyte, and MSI. Both the P965 Express and G965 Express chipsets made appearances. Both these support up to 1066 MHz FSB for Core 2 Duos. The major difference between them is that the G965 features onboard Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 3000, while the P965 Express needs you to add your own PCI-Express card.

Another design difference is that G965 Express can support 4 DIMMs per channel, so vendors can provide up to eight memory slots. In contrast, the P965 offers only two DIMMs per channel. Of course, this doesn't really say much, because most mainstream boards come with a maximum of four memory slots, and both chipsets support a maximum of 8 GB DDR2 RAM running at 800 MHz.


PC Mark 2005 Performance(Intel)

All the motherboards in this category have enough ports to take care of all your hard drive and optical drive requirements (SATA and IDE connectors). The Gigabyte GA-965P-DQ6 offers eight SATA ports-the highest in the category. Since both the chipsets have support for Intel's Matrix storage, all the boards have RAID support.

All the Gigabyte motherboards in this category-except for the GA-965GM-S2 had all solid capacitor designs, which translates to longer-lasting boards.

HD Audio was common across all the boards, with support for up to eight channels. Except for the MSI P965 Neo-F and Gigabyte GA-965GM-S2, all the boards feature optical out and S/PDIF out.

While all the boards offer Gigabit LAN, the ASUS P5B Deluxe WiFi-AP was the only board to feature an integrated Wi-Fi (802.11g) solution. Moreover, it doubles up as an access point, allowing you to create your own wireless network without having to buy a wireless router!

Both the GA-965P-DQ6 and the P5B Deluxe WiFi-AP use heatpipes. Gigabyte's heatpipe covers the Northbridge, Southbridge, and the CPU power MOSFET.


Gigabyte GA-965P-DQ6, Rock-solid performance

The layout of the Gigabyte GA-965P-DQ6 is very congested. If you own a 7900 GTX, you will need to remove it to add or remove RAM.  Another sore point is the lack of space between the the CPU fan's heatsink and the heatpipe, making it a tricky affair when you remove the heatsink.

The ASUS P5B Deluxe WiFi-AP has identical problems. It adds one by placing the clear CMOS jumper too close to the graphics slot. The MSI P965 Neo-F has some layout issues as well: its 24-pin power connector arcs over the RAM, so you'll have to disconnect it to remove the RAM. As if that weren't bad enough, a big graphics card blocks the IDE connector! The Gigabyte GA-965G-DS3 is the best laid-out board here-all components are very easy to access.


PC Mark 2005 Performance (AMD)

Both Gigabyte and ASUS have incorporated some nifty overclocking features into their boards. If you prefer to soft-overclock (from within Windows), Gigabyte provides a utility called Easy Tune 5 that does the job decently. For BIOS warriors, Gigabyte offers what they call MIB (Motherboard Intelligent Tweaker), which will let you manipulate all voltage and frequency options for the board. ASUS features a Windows-based overclocking utility called AI Boost. To overclock using the BIOS, you need to enter the ASUS Jumper-Free configuration in the BIOS menu. Once there, you can tweak to your heart's content. ASUS, Gigabyte and MSI all feature an update service for the BIOS and drivers over the Internet.

Performance
Gaming
In the Far Cry test we ran, all P965 chipset motherboards gave us almost identical scores. The top two contenders-Gigabyte's GA-965P-DQ6 and ASUS' P5B Deluxe WiFi-AP-had almost same scores at a resolution of 1024x768. Doom 3 is where the gap started to widen. While the Gigabyte GA-965P-DQ6 scored 165.1 fps, ASUS P5B Deluxe WiFi-AP managed 146.2 fps. This goes to indicate that the GA-965P-DQ6 has a better graphics subsystem.

Synthetic Benchmarks
Again, the P965 were quite close together. The Gigabyte GA-965P-DQ6 gave us a score of 11801, while the MSI P965 Neo-F managed 11770. Again, these scores indicate that the Gigabyte GA-965P-DQ6 is a better option for gamers.

In PCMark 2005, the MSI P965 Platinum raced ahead of the competition with an overall score of 7684. Its closest competitor was the MSI P965 Neo-F with 7544 points. The P5B Deluxe and GA-965P-DQ6 disappointed with scores of 7259 and 7499 respectively.

Gigabyte's GA-965P-DQ6 and GA-965P-DS3 returned almost identical memory scores in the SiSoft Sandra tests, leaving the competition far behind. In terms of CPU scores, all P965 chipset-based motherboards showed us that they were not bottlenecks-by coming up with almost identical scores. The exception-and it seems that there always has to be one-was the Gigabyte GA-965P-DS3, with lower scores than we anticipated. The G965 chipset-based motherboards, the GA-965GM-S2 and GA-965G-DS3, scored badly compared to the competition (about 25 per cent lower scores in the CPU tests), proving that these boards are not good Core 2 Duo solutions. All the motherboards in this group returned identical filesystem scores.


MSI P 965 platinum-the low priced performer

Real-World Benchmarks

Our video encoding test, designed to push the boards, brought up hardly any difference in scores. The time taken for P965-based motherboards varied from 70 seconds (GA-965P-DQ6) to 80 seconds (GA-965P-DS3), while the GA-965GM-S2 and GA-965G-DS3 both took 91 seconds. The consistent performance of the P965 chipset here confirms that Intel's optimisation for Core 2 Duos is working well. If it's audio or video editing that you're looking for, look no further than a P965-based board and a Core 2 Duo.

Our Conclusion
Gigabyte's GA-965P-DQ6, the ASUS P5B Deluxe WiFi-AP and the MSI P965 Platinum were the top performers in different benchmarks. All three are built sturdily with good subsystems.

With integrated Wi-Fi and dual-Gigabit LAN, the ASUS P5B Deluxe WiFi-AP just blows the rest away in terms of features. It also has a great software bundle, including InterVideo Media Launcher.

The MSI P965 Neo-F offers the best value for money, at Rs 6,400. This is much cheaper than the others in the segment, with some G965 chipset-based motherboards costing at least double that. Instead of spending around Rs 12,000 for G965 motherboards, it's better to opt for P965 boards. While the Gigabyte GA-965P-DQ6 and the ASUS P5B Deluxe WiFi-AP carry the same price tag, the P5B Deluxe WiFi-AP has lot more features than the GA-965P-DQ6. So if you want a feature-rich board with good performance, the ASUS P5B Deluxe WiFi-AP is the way to go.

Deciding the winner for this category was difficult. After careful consideration, we awarded the Digit Best Buy Gold to the Gigabyte GA-965P-DQ6. The Digit Best Buy Silver goes to the MSI P965 Neo-F, because of decent performance at almost half the price of the others.

945G And 945GZ
Features
This category is the hottest-selling in the market, and is mainly targeted at home and office users where performance is not the only criterion that counts. This category saw six motherboards from ASRock, Gigabyte, and MSI fight it out for top spot.
Designed to support Pentium 4 EE/HT and Pentium D CPUs, this chipset is mainly targeted at budget consumers. With later revisions providing Core 2 Duo support, this category can be considered the poor man's tool to fulfil the Core 2 Duo dream. The ASRock ConRoe 945G-DVI, Gigabyte GA-8I945GZME-RH, and the Gigabyte GA-945GM-S2 are some of the motherboards which, despite their older chipsets, support Core 2 Duos.


ASRock Conroe 945G-DVI, A David to the G965 Goliaths

All the 945GZ based chipsets have only two memory slots, limiting the maximum installable memory to 2 GB. This should be sufficient for most applications, but it's certainly not future-proof.

Since this is the budget segment, all the motherboards came with integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950. While the 945G chipset-based motherboards allow for an upgrade via a PCI-Express slot, the 945GZ limits you to the integrated graphics.

All the motherboards have a maximum of four SATA ports. While most of these boards have only one IDE port, the MSI 945G Platinum offers three. It was also the only board with RAID support.

 
SiSoft Sandra 2007 Scores (AMD)
The MSI 945GZM3 has placed the Northbridge heatsink very close to the processor heatsink. Gigabyte's GA-945GM-S2 is another board with a bad layout-the CPU fan power socket is located bang in the middle of the RAM slots. This can be very inconvenient while removing the RAM or the CPU fan power cable.

Since these motherboards fall in the budget segment, it doesn't necessarily mean that they don't come with a good bundle. MSI 945GZM3 comes bundled with Norton Internet Security 2005; ASRock has packed its ConRoe 945G-DVI with McAfee virus scan.

Performance
Gaming
These motherboards are not supposed to be used for high-end gaming, so they have very minimal gaming performance compared to their cousins in the other two categories. Since all motherboards featured integrated video, you may not be able to play all the latest games, but classics like Quake III will still rock using onboard graphics.

Synthetic Benchmarks
ASRock's Conroe 945G-DVI, topped the test with a score of 771 units in 3DMark 05. It had a clear advantage due to the Core 2 Duo X6800 it was running. The advantage due to the more powerful CPU was clearly evident as the Pentium 4 powered ECS 945G-M3 returned a score of only 636 units.

The PCMark 2005 test also shows the disparity a CPU can create among similar motherboards. While the 945G-based ECS 945G-M3 could only manage an overall score of 3019, the ASRock Conroe 945G-DVI gave around 60 per cent higher scores, with an overall score of 4929 units. Comparing these scores to those of a G965-based board like the Gigabyte GA-965G-DS3 really shocked us. The 945G chipset-based ASRock Conroe 945G-DVI did better than GA-965G-DS3's score of 4073 units. This clearly shows that ASRock has done a good job with the Conroe 945G-DVI, optimising it for the Core 2 Duos.

SiSoft Sandra 2007 Engineer's edition CPU scores were fluctuating due to the difference between the type of CPU used.  The difference between Pentium 4 and Core 2 Duo was huge-especially the CPU multimedia scores.

Real-World Benchmarks
The Gigabyte GA-945GM-S2 and ASRock Conroe 945G-DVI took practically the same time to finish our video encoding test. With 84 seconds, the Gigabyte GA-945GM-S2 was definitely slower than the P965-based motherboards, but faster than the expensive G965 motherboards. The MSI 945GZM3 was the slowest, taking 148 seconds.

Our Conclusion
The ASRock Conroe 945G-DVI led the way in most of the tests due to its support for the more powerful Core 2 Duo CPU, its older chipset notwithstanding. It also did better than some G965 chipset-based motherboards. So if you're looking for a Core 2 Duo board on a budget, instead of spending around Rs 12,000 on a G965-based board, it might make sense to invest in the ASRock Conroe 945G-DVI.

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Gigabyte GA-945GM-S2gateway to Core 2 Duo

As this segment is defined by value for money, the ECS 945G-M3 was the favourite, with a price tag of just Rs 4,395. But given its support for Core 2 Duos, the ASRock 945G-DVI takes the cake with a price tag of just Rs 4,500. On the other hand, MSI's 945G Platinum is really highly priced at Rs 8,000.

Keeping our focus on value for money and trying to squeeze in as much performance as we could, we decided that the ASRock Conroe 945G-DVI should be the Digit Best Buy Gold winner. Gigabyte's GA-945GM-S2 took the Digit Best Buy Silver. Both these boards are priced competitively and support the Core 2 Duos.

 The Features Myth

A motherboard is one of the most feature-packed amongst all PC components (and we're talking mainly marketable features), so your friendly neighborhood PC vendor being the salesman that he is, will surely try to score here.

Marketable features are not to be mistaken for useful features, which is what we'd like you to be aware of. For example, the classic opening statement "this motherboard has eight USB ports." Sure it does, we agree-but are all those USB ports really needed? How many of them do you plan to use simultaneously? Not more than three, we'd bet! And don't all other boards also come with at least six to eight USB ports? Some ship with 10! The simple fact is that such components are chipset-specific, and motherboard manufacturers can include as many USB ports as the chipset maker allows, so he isn't doing you any favours.

Another such oft-recited feature is 'onboard 7.1 audio'. What good is this going to do for someone planning on 2.1 speakers, or even headphones? A person investing some 10,000 plus rupees on a decent set of 5.1 speakers would be quite able to shell out Rs 4,000 or so for a much higher quality 24-bit sound card (compared to the regular onboard sound solution). On top of all that, there are no 7.1 audio sources to actually utilise all those eight channels of sound.

A lot of motherboards come with a number of PCI-Express x1 slots, too. These aren't a great addition simply because as of now, very few add-on cards sport this interface. A couple of well-laid-out PCI slots and a single PCI express slot (x16) should be enough for most users. Although they do add a certain amount of future-proofing, we think a single x1 slot should be sufficient. What we really want to get across is that this isn't by any means a plus point (having more of such slots), and you shouldn't be paying extra for them!
We intend these examples as eye-openers. A good motherboard is very hard to define, as needs differ greatly across users, but to purchase one on the sole basis of features you'd hardly ever use is pointless. We're not telling you to disregard features, of course-quite the contrary. But you do need to define needs, keeping a little headway for inevitable upgrades that are as natural to PC components as an oil change is to a car!

A much better plan is to check out what future processor upgrades the board's chipset will support, how many drives (whether HD or optical) you can add, number of expansion slots (PCI, PCI-Express, etc.), memory upgradeability, 24-bit onboard sound, presence of FireWire and E-SATA ports, etc.

The point here is to make an informed decision defining your own worth-paying-for features, rather than having a vendor practising a bit of deal-closing on you!


Intel High End Test click Here
 
975X and nForce 4 SLI

This category is targeted at those who need just one thing-performance! Boards in this segment are targeted at gamers, enthusiasts, and audio/video editing professionals.

Features
We received four boards for this category from Intel and MSI, two each based on each chipset as well.

As we've already said, revisions to the 975X allow it to be used with Core 2 Duos. nForce 4 SLI-based motherboards are beaten here because they only support Pentium 4 EE/HT and Pentium D processors.

Both are older chipsets, and were designed for Pentium 4 and Pentium D processors. Also, both offer multi-GPU support. That's where the similarities end.

While the 975X series supports ATI's CrossFire solution, the nForce 4 SLI is built for NVIDIA's SLI multi-GPU solution. On paper, both chipsets can support DDR2 @ 667 MHz. However, we discovered that the 975X can also support DDR2 @ 800 MHz. So although the nForce 4 SLI can support up to 16 GB of RAM at 667 MHz, the 975X can support up to 8 GB of RAM at higher frequencies.

These boards can support a large number of SATA II drives, the top being the Intel D975XBX with support for up to eight. A common feature across all these boards is that all of them have support for RAID. While 975X chipsets use Intel's Matrix storage, nForce4 SLI boards utilise NVIDIA's NV RAID technology that spans across SATA and IDE hard drives.

All these motherboards supported HD audio for eight channels-called Azalia-at 192 Khz / 32-bit quality, compared to the earlier AC'97 standard that delivered a maximum of six channels at 48 Khz / 20-bit. The best audio solution was on the MSI P4N Diamond in the form of Creative SoundBlaster Live! 24-bit audio. This solution can only be beaten by an external audio solution like a Creative Audigy or X-Fi.

All the boards feature Gigabit LAN support, with P4N SLI and P4N Diamond supporting dual LAN. To keep the system fully updated, MSI boards feature "Live Update 3": this tool checks online for BIOS / drivers / utility updates. You can decide whether to proceed with the update(s) or not. These boards have tremendous power but they're not really future-proof, especially with quad-core processors on the horizon.

Performance
Gaming
The Intel D975XBX was the clear winner in this segment. It left its closest competitor, the MSI 975X Platinum Power Up Edition, lagging behind in Far Cry, though the difference in Doom 3 was just around 5 fps. The MSI P4N SLI and the P4N Diamond were nowhere near the 975X boards.

The Intel D975XBX is definitely the board you should be looking at if you are an avid gamer, given that the price difference between the Intel D975XBX and the MSI 975X Platinum Power Up Edition is hardly anything.


Intel D975XBX, A stable performer
 
Synthetic Benchmarks
For those who plan to use their machines for high-end games or 3D modelling, 3DMark scores affect buying decisions. The Intel D975XBX and MSI 975X Platinum Power Up Edition were neck to neck in 3DMark 05, but the MSI 975X Platinum Power Up Edition won by a hairsbreadth.

PCMark 2005 saw the Intel D975XBX beat the MSI 975X  Platinum Power Up Edition. These results suggest that the D975XBX is a very good board even for day-to-day applications. In SiSoft Sandra 2007 Engineer's edition, the CPU scores for 975X-based motherboards were nearly the same. The 975X board scores were more than triple what the nForce 4 SLI-based could manage. This is because of the power of Core 2 Duo CPUs and support for higher RAM frequencies. While memory bandwidth scores for nForce 4 SLI boards were similar, the MSI 975X Platinum Power Up Edition scored considerably over the Intel D975XBX. Filesystem scores were almost identical across the board.

Real-World
Benchmarks
Our video encoding test saw the Intel D975XBX beating everything, with a total time of just 70 seconds. The MSI 975X Platinum Power Up Edition came close, with 72 seconds. The P4N brothers took nearly 60 per cent more time to finish the same task.

Our Conclusion
The Intel 975XBX was the top performer with the highest scores in most benchmarks, followed closely by  the MSI 975X Platinum Power Up Edition. These boards had a clear advantage thanks to the 975X chipset.

With its Creative SoundBlaster Live! 24-bit audio and Dual Gigabit LAN, the MSI P4N Diamond was clearly the most feature rich board in this category. It also had a good number of accessories bundled.

When it comes to price, the MSI 975X Platinum Power Up Edition and MSI P4N Diamond cost the same. This was really surprising-the MSI P4N is an older board, and its performance is nowhere close to that of the MSI 975X Platinum Power Up Edition!

The Digit Best Buy Gold award goes to the Intel D975XBX, and Silver goes to the MSI 975X Platinum Power Up Edition, due to its decent performance and value for money.


MSI P 975X platinum Power Up Edition
 
Our Conclusion
If you want to continue using your older Pentium D or Pentium 4 CPU until you can afford a quad-core, opt for a 945G/GZ-based motherboard. These boards are quite cheap, but not very strong on performance. If you are not planning to upgrade in a hurry, steer clear of 945G/GZ chipsets. The same goes for the nForce 4 SLI chipset.

For a performance freak, 975X chipsets are good. Their future is doubtful, however, as Intel seems to be focusing on the newer 965 series of chipsets. If you want a high-performance system with good upgrade options, it has to be a P965 chipset-based board. You get good performance, and the promise of quad-core support to boot!

Final Thoughts
For the duration of these extensive tests, we took the opportunity to spend some quality time with a few of these boards, and spent a number of late nights gaming away to glory. A motherboard seems an unlikely candidate to get up close to: after all, it's not a personal device like a cell phone or MP3 player. However, motherboards do have certain inherent characteristics that tend to become noticeable once you actually get into the finer nuances of tuning them and using them for extended periods.

Judging by the motherboards we received this time, manufacturers are attempting to make strong inroads into personalising motherboards: it's part of product strategy, we feel-trying to get us to view the impersonal motherboard as a lifestyle product.

What really matters is that manufacturers have also put thought into the pricing-expensive isn't necessarily stylish now. Even the top-end boards offer serious value for the features they bring, and there's never been a better time to buy a motherboard.




Team DigitTeam Digit  teamdigit@digit.in

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