FUTURE PERFECT

Published Date
01 - Feb - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Feb - 2005
 
FUTURE PERFECT
Evolution on Earth is a lethargic process. Events in the PC market follow a similar  timeline, with innovations moving the industry at a leisurely pace. It is thus quite a sight to witness the barren lands of the PC-wrecked by bandwidth limitations and littered with GHz myths-sprouting next-generation technologies that promise to turn the desert into thriving wetlands. Sleek and efficient dual-core processors replacing fire-breathing, single-core GHz monsters is a good thing. Bottlenecks are, similarly, being eradicated by the replacing of parallel connectors with serial ones-witness the PCI-Express bus and SATA hard disks. Graphics cards now sport CPU-like processors which will soon be better utilised by operating systems across the board, bringing performance and usability to an ageing GUI.

The PC industry is shifting gears, and not a moment too soon. This change in pace brings along new jargon to sift through. New chipsets, new processor roadmaps, new memory technologies and the like take on greater significance. Change brings along confusion; our first task here will be to shed light on the scene.

Our goal here is not to choose the best processor and the best motherboard. Rather, it is to pick the best combination. We will help you arrive at a system-wide solution-a solution that will last you through a few years and that will not strain your pocket: the conclusion to this test will thus choose a combination processor/motherboard that strikes the perfect balance between performance, features and price.

With that in mind, let us first take a look at where things stand in the rival camps of industry movers Intel and AMD.

Last year, Intel introduced its 915 and 925 chipsets alongside the new LGA 775 socket processors, which were meant to be paired with these chipsets. The highlight of these chipsets was PCI-Express, offering significantly higher bandwidth than the current PCI bus (For a complete low-down on PCI-Express, read our In Sight story on page 32). nVidia and ATi were the first to launch products for the new bus, and the rest of the industry will follow soon.

AMD, after the introduction of their Athlon 64 processors, are riding the waves of success. Not only are their CPUs currently at the top of the speed chart, but they have managed to rein in the heating issues that plagued them.

While Intel's product portfolio is focused and simple to understand, AMD's is a complete mess. The Athlon 64 processors are currently available in two different socket versions: Socket 939 and Socket 754. The Athlon XP range of processors recently got a replacement in the form of Sempron.

While that was on the processor side, the number of chipsets available for an AMD processor is numerous, and deciding upon one is not an easy task. This will be handled later on in this article when we look at motherboards from different manufacturers sporting various chipsets.

We often receive letters asking what kind of machine will be decent enough to play most of today's games, will offer a fair amount of upgradeability, and most importantly, will be easy enough on the wallet. Since processors and motherboards are the two most crucial components that decide the overall performance of a system, while dictating the headroom for future expansion, we decided to do a CPU and motherboard comparison test. This article will help you decide the right platform to upgrade to, or settle for, when buying a new PC.

Due to the aforementioned changes in technology, choices are many, and at this juncture choosing the right solution matters: one wrong turn and your upgrade options could hit a dead-end. So, as we compare the different processors and motherboards, we will also discuss the pros and cons of the respective chipsets and processor families.

This article is broadly classified into two parts: processors and motherboards. First, we take a look at the available processors, and then benchmark them to arrive at a winner. Similar treatment will then be applied to motherboards. We will then pick the best combination of processor and motherboard, offering you a complete solution.

A Look At Processors 
Before we get to the action, let us refresh our knowledge on the types of processors available.
 
Intel Processors 
As of today, Intel has two lines of processors, namely the Pentium 4 series for performance seekers, and Celeron D for the value-end of the market. The original Pentium 4 processors were based on the 130nm manufacturing process, featured 512 KB of L2 cache and ran on a 533 MHz FSB. But today's Pentium 4 is a different beast; it features 1 MB of L2 cache, runs on an 800 MHz FSB and is manufactured using the 90nm process. A still newer version expected soon will run on a 1066 MHz bus.

 

There are also special-edition Pentium 4 processors called 'Extreme Edition', and denoted by 'EE'. The EE processors have 2 MB of L3 cache and are manufactured using the older 130nm process. The new line of Pentium 4 processors based on the LGA 775 package is denoted by a new nomenclature. Instead of using the core speed as the name, Intel calls this series the 5XX series, where the 'XX' ranges from 20 to 60. Processors that have the 'Execute disable bit' capability have the letter 'J' following the 5XX number, an example being 560J. 

The older Pentium 4 processors required a Socket 478 motherboard, e.g. 845, 865, 875, chipset-based boards, whereas the newer ones will be produced for the LGA 775 package. The LGA (Land Grid Array) type of socket is found on motherboards supporting Intel's new chipsets, i.e., the 915 and 925.

On the Celeron front, too, there are two versions; the older ones that run on a 400 MHz bus have 128 KB of L2 cache, and are manufactured using the 130nm process. The newer 90nm-manufactured Celeron processors are called Celeron D, and are denoted by 3XX series where the 'XX' ranges from 15 to 40. The new Celeron D runs on a 533 MHz bus and features 256 KB of L2 cache. Some models of the Celeron D are available for the LGA 775 sockets; the rest use the older Socket 478.

How We Tested Processors 
This year, we revived our 'Processor Test' process with newer and better benchmarks and testing procedures. All the new benchmarks are highly processor-dependent, and the peripheral sub-system has a low level of involvement, which results in scores that reflect the true potential of the processor's computational power.
For Intel's LGA 775 processors, we used Intel's D952XCV motherboard with 1 GB of DDR-II 533 MHZ memory, whereas for the Socket 478 processors, we used Gigabyte's 8TRS350MT motherboard with 1 GB of DDR 400 MHz Corsair memory.
AMD's Socket 939 processors were plugged onto an Asus A8V-Deluxe, while Socket 754 processors went with MSI's K8N Neo 2. Socket 'A' processors were tied with the ASUS A7N8X-Deluxe.
Windows XP with SP1 was freshly loaded on a Maxtor Diamond Max 120 GB SATA drive. On the graphics front, we used Gigabyte's AGP card based on the nVidia GeForce 5700 chipset and MSI's PCIe card based on nVidia's GeForce 5750 chipset.

ScienceMark 2.0
ScienceMark 2.0, as the name suggests, is a benchmark based on scientific calculations. This benchmark constitutes multiple benchmarks that test various aspects of a processor. We used the following benchmarking modules:
MolDyn (Molecular Dynamics): Molecular Dynamics simulates the thermodynamic behaviour of materials using their forces, velocities, and positions, where force is the most important parameter.
Primordia (atoms): This code calculates the Quantum Mechanical Hartree-Fock orbitals for each electron in any element of the periodic table. The number crunching involved in the calculation is complex and stresses the FPU (Floating-Point Unit) of a processor. The final score is given as the time taken to complete the calculations.
Cipher Test: The 'Cipher Test' tests four different forms of encryption algorithms, AES 128/256 bit and RSA 512/1024 bit. The calculations involved are mathematically inclined, resulting in the stressing of the ALU (Arithmetic and Logic Unit) of the processor. 

WinRAR 3.3
WinRAR 3.3 offers an inbuilt benchmark, operating on random data, which is processed in the memory. Since the data is operated on in the memory, the results are free from any influence that a disk system may impart.

CINEBENCH 2003
CINEBENCH 2003 is the free benchmarking tool for Windows and Mac OS based on the 3D software CINEMA 4D R8. CINEBENCH 2003 delivers accurate results by testing a processor's raw processing speed which affects system performance such as OpenGL, multithreading and multiprocessing. Also, this benchmark gives a clear view of Intel's HT technology in operations, as it supports HT.

SiSoft Sandra 2005
This is the same good old benchmarking tool with newer features and tests added to it. Nothing seems to have changed except for the new user interface and the extra benchmarking tool for USB drives, cache memory and other parts. We logged scores particularly related to the CPU, memory and disk drive.

Doom 3  
Doom 3 is a graphically intensive game capable of making any machine crawl. This OpenGL game paints a good picture of what a decent machine should consist of to run games of the future.

Half-Life 2
This DirectX 9.0 game scales very well with processor speed. Moreover, any hardware which runs this game well will be comfortable with upcoming game titles.

Ziff-Davis Multimedia Content Creation
This benchmark suite runs applications related to processor-intensive multimedia applications such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premier and WaveLab.

AMD Processors 
AMD has the Athlon 64 and Sempron ranges of processors. Depending on the processor interface, or the socket, the Athlon 64 can be divided into two distinct categories-one that uses Socket 754 and the other that plugs into a Socket 939. 754-pin processors have a single-channel, 64-bit memory controller, whereas the Socket 939 has a 128-bit, dual-channel controller. The HyperTransport link-a serial bus linking components on an AMD motherboard-on a 754-pin processor is capped at 1600 MHz, which is otherwise 2000 MHz for the 939-pin processor. The total processor-to-system bandwidth on a 754-pin is limited to 9.6 GB/s, whereas it is 14.4 GB/s for 939s. In short, the 939-pin processors are geared for better performance than the 754s.

The L2 cache size on the Athlon 64 processor varies between 512 KB and 1 MB. Similar to Intel's 'EE' processors, AMD has the Athlon 64 FX range, available only on a 939-pin package.

Sempron processors are meant to replace the older Athlon XP range of processors. They are available in two versions-one for the 754 Socket and the other for the soon-to-retire Socket 'A'. Why two versions?
 
Initially, AMD wanted to retire the Athlon XP range, but since the Socket 'A' platform provides the most value, they thought it wise to postpone its death. Hence the release of Sempron for Socket 'A' motherboards. Moreover, to bring some stability to their platforms, AMD identifies the Socket 754 as the ideal platform for the near future, and hence the release of the 754 package Sempron.

AMD processors of yesteryear were infamous for their heating problems, but this is no longer the case. The Athlon 64 hardly gets past 50 degrees Celsius; in et, suggesting a CPU-memory link inferior to the
Gigabyte board.

Half-Life 2
Half-Life 2 scales well with processor performance. Since MSI's 915P Neo 2 did well on the PCMark CPU score, it came as no surprise when the board offered thhhe board offert system hangs and crashes are experienced.

Who's The King?
Let's get into the real comparison of the processors and see who comes out tops. This comparison included six processors from Intel, ranging from clock speeds of 2.53 GHz to 3.6 GHz.

AMD provided us with 10 processors, including the top-of-the-line FX-55, along with the entire Sempron range. We also included the Athlon XP 3200 . It should be noted that high-end processors such as the P4 3.4 GHz EE, Athlon FX-55, Athlon FX-53, and the Athlon XP 3200 are either too costly or are phased out, and hence are not part of this comparison. We included them to bring better clarity to the results of the mid-range processors.

Let us take each benchmark and dissect it to see which processor fares well and why.

Content Creation 2004
This is a system benchmark, and so, apart from raw processing power, it also relies on other critical parameters such as I/O bandwidth and memory bandwidth. The Athlon64 3000 was right on top, scoring 31.4, despite the 1.2 GHz advantage the Pentium 4 3.2 GHz Intel processor has.

The Athlon64 3000 processor has an on-die, dual-memory controller, and hence, memory bandwidth is not an issue and stands at 8 GB/s. Intel's 3.6 GHz also supports dual-channel, but its memory controller is part of the Northbridge and provides a bandwidth of 6.4 GB/s.

When you look at the results, the difference in performance, though not significant at first glance, becomes important when you factor in the 1.2 GHz advantage the P4 enjoys. The reason for the Athlon 64 3000 winning is the excellent bandwidth and low latency offered by the HyperTransport bus used by AMD processors.

This analysis is further confirmed when you compare the older Athlon XP 3200 and Sempron 3100 . The Sempron 3100 is a 754-pin processor running at 1.8 GHz and uses HyperTransport, whereas the XP 3200 is a Socket 'A' processor running at 2.2 GHz, but the memory controller is part of the Northbridge, a setup similar to the one used by Intel. Thanks to this, the Sempron 3100 leads the Athlon XP 3200 . Note how the 2.53 GHz Celeron D was thrashed by the Sempron 2400 running at 1.63 GHz, underlining the ageing nature of the Celeron line-up.

ScienceMark 2.0
This benchmark suite consists of numerous tests that involve data calculations such as the mathematically-intense molecular dynamics of the MolDyn test. Through this benchmark, a processor's number-crunching ability comes to the fore. We will now take you through the tests we used within this suite.

Primordia
This test relies mainly on the CPU and, to some extent, on the CPU-memory link. The disk system does not figure in the equation at all. AMD's Athlon 64 3000 comes out as the best number cruncher in this lot of processors.

Here too, the Athlon 64 3000 betters the faster-clocked Pentium4 3.2 GHz Prescott. The longer pipelines on the Prescott core are the reason for the performance hit: if your job involves number-crunching varied datasets, such as in the scientific calculations made in this benchmark, processors with shorter pipelines score over processors with high core speeds with long pipelines. (We have not factored the Athlon XP 3200 here because this processor will no longer be available.)

One interesting thing to note was the difference between the Athlon XP 3200 and the Sempron 3100 . While in the Content Creation test above, we noted that the Sempron was way ahead of the XP 3200 , the tide reverses drastically when it comes to number crunching. This clarifies two things: if your work involves a lot of high-bandwidth work-using image manipulation applications, 3D rendering, or sound editing-a processor with better CPU-to-memory bandwidth will do well. But if your work pertains to pure number crunching, processors with shorter pipelines and higher clock speeds are better suited to your needs.

The Sempron 3100 and 2800 , despite their lower clock speeds, were able to beat the Pentium 4 3 GHz and 2.8 GHz quite easily. Both Intel processors are based on the Prescott core and feature
longer pipelines.

MolDyn
Here the results were pretty similar to the Primordia test, confirming AMD's superb data-crunching strength relative to Intel's new Prescott core. The higher-clocked Sempron processors beat the Sempron 3100 and Athlon 2800 . The Celeron D trailed the Sempron 3000 by a hefty 55-second margin.

Cipher Test
This test is based on the AES block cipher, formerly known as Rijndael. In this test, the results kept the status quo: the Athlon64 3000 occupied the first position, while the 3.2 GHz Prescott came in at a respectable second. The rest of the story was very similar, with the Semprons giving their Intel counterparts a hard time.

At the low end of the range, the Sempron 2400 was still beating the Celeron 2.53 GHz convincingly. In this test, core clock speed and work done per clock matters-hence we observe a scaling of performance.

WinRAR 3.3
The Athlon 64 family made their mark here with the Athlon 64 3000 taking a convincing lead over Intel's P4 3.2 GHz Prescott. It was interesting to see the Sempron 3100 beating most of the Pentium 4 series by a considerable margin. This was the first time the Celeron D processor actually beat a Sempron-the Sempron 2500 .

How We Tested Motherboards 
The motherboards were segregated first on platform and then on chipsets.
For boards based on Socket 478, we used Intel's Pentium 4 3.2 GHz processor and 1 GB of DDR 400 MHz memory. For the LGA 775 socket, we used a 3.4 GHz EE Processor and 1 GB of DDR 400 or DDR II 533 memory, depending on the motherboard support.
For Socket 939-based AMD motherboards, we used an FX-55 processor; for Socket 754-based boards, we used an Athlon 64 3000 processor; and for socket 'A', we used an Athlon XP 3200 .
For both these rigs, we used a Gigabyte GeForce 5700 card for AGP-based boards and an MSI 5750-based card for PCIe boards.
We used a SATA 120 GB Maxtor Diamond Max drive on both test rigs. Windows XP with SP1 was our choice of operating system for the test. All other required drivers and patches were loaded before continuing with the tests. The operating system was freshly-installed for all motherboards and the hard drive was defragmented before testing. 

PC Mark 2004: The test mainly comprises applications that are used in day-to-day functioning, and generates a score depending on the performance of the system in each individual test.
3D Mark 03: We used the 2003 version since most of the tests in the new version would be skipped due to lack of hardware support in the GeForce 5700-based cards. However, 3D Mark 2003 scales fairly well and was therefore used for gauging the graphics sub-system of the motherboards.
CineBench 2003: This tool is set to deliver accurate benchmarks by testing the computer's raw processing speed, and other areas that affect system performance such as OpenGL, multithreading, multiprocessing, and Intel's new HT Technology.

CINEBENCH 2003
The results from this benchmark are quite interesting: CINEBENCH 2003 makes perfect use of Intel's HyperThreading technology, and hence we see Intel's 3.2 GHz processors taking the steam out of AMD's processors and coming out on top. Except for the Celeron D, nearly all Intel processors performed extremely well here.

To clarify, HyperThreading does not involve two physical processors. It is accomplished by having a virtual processor along with the physical one. The results of this test are important for the future: both Intel and AMD are due to release dual-core CPUs-processors with two physical cores on a single die-in the latter half of this year. If the current breed of HT-enabled processors derive a good performance benefit, it would
be interesting to see the performance of dual-cores on this benchmark and similar multi-threaded applications.

dBpowerAMP
The Athlon 64 3000 was the fastest at ripping songs from a CD, getting the job done in just 77 seconds. Surprisingly, the Sempron 2800 took second position, displacing the Athlon64 2800 to third position. Intel's P4 3.2 GHz was outgunned even by the Sempron 3100 . The Celeron processor was nearly 31 per cent slower than the Athlon64 3000 .

DVD to DivX
In DivX encoding, the tides favour Intel. Both the Pentium 4s-the 3.2 and 3 GHz-beat the Athlon 64 3000 by a considerable margin. The results clearly indicate that DivX encoding relies heavily on core clock speeds, streaming instructions (SSE, SSE2, SSE3), and how well an application makes use of these streaming instructions. The DivX codec has been optimised for Intel processors, and so you see the boost when you use Pentium 4 processors.

The lower-clocked Sempron 2400 and 2500 paid the penalty, taking the last slots, falling behind the slightly higher-clocked Celeron D processor.
DOOM 3
In the gaming test too, AMD's processors took the crown; interestingly, it was the Athlon 64 2800 . The Athlon64 3000 was behind the 2800 by 3 fps. Close on its heels were its cost-effective siblings, the Sempron 3000 and 3100 .

The Intel processors were completely overshadowed by the startling performance of the Athlon 64 range. In fact, the new Sempron 3100 , 3000 and 2800 , which cost no more than Rs 6,000, performed better than Intel's expensive Pentium 4 series. The scores returned by the Celeron D 2.53 GHz processor were pathetic-just about half of what the Athlon 64 2800 returned.

Another point to remember is that DOOM 3 is more graphically intensive than Half-Life2-future-games using this engine will rely more on your graphics card than on the CPU.

Half-Life 2
The results obtained from this test are interesting because the scores scale with rated processor performance. Intel's 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 managed to steal the limelight thanks to its higher clock speed and larger cache. However, the Athlon 64 3000 was a hair's breadth away from the leader, which is commendable, taking into account the 1.2 GHz speed advantage the P4 enjoys over the 3000 .

The competition really heated up for third place between the Athlon 64 2800 and the Pentium 4 3 GHz. Eventually, the AMD toppled the Intel processor by a small margin. With the help of faster clock speeds, the Pentium 4s-the 3 and 2.8 GHz-beat the lower-clocked Semprons. From the scores, we can infer that Half-life 2 scales well with your processor-the faster the CPU, the better the performance the game delivers.

And The Winner Is…
The Athlon64 3000 makes it to the top thanks to its excellent performance and attractive pricing. Competing Intel processors lack that extra juice to take on the AMD Athlon64 3000 .

The Sempron range of processors provides the best value for money; at least in certain tests such as the DOOM 3 test, it gives even the high-end Intel processors a run for their money.

However, before you jump out to buy one of these, there are certain things to consider: the Socket 'A' versions of this processor, available as 2400 , 2500 , 2800 and 3000 , are manufactured only to prolong the life of that platform. Therefore, consider buying them only if you are upgrading your older Athlon XP-based machine. If you are buying a new Sempron machine, we would recommend the new 3100 , based on the 754 socket, so you have the option of upgrading to Athlon 64 later.

Price versus Performance 
In this graph, we have plotted a processor's performance against the price at which it is offered. Price is along the X-axis, and processor performance on the Y-axis. The green dots represent AMD processors, and the blue dots indicate Intel processors.
As you can see from the graph, as the price increases, so does performance; however, the increase in performance is not linear.
AMD's Athlon64 3000 has the highest performance and it is offered at roughly Rs 7,000. Intel's 3.2 GHz comes in at second place, but is steeply priced at Rs 14,000. The difference in these prices is significant; however, there is a mere five per cent difference in performance. In other words, at 50 per cent of the price, the Athlon 64 3000 offers better performance by a margin of five per cent over Intel's 3.2 GHz. Similar inferences can be drawn by comparing other pairs of processors.

While that was Sempron, the value processor from AMD, the Celeron D processors from Intel are a hopeless piece of silicon that you should not bet you hard-earned money on.
 
Choosing The Right Processor
As with any other element of your computer, define the typical usage that your processor will see before you choose one. If you are in academia, where your work involves scientific calculations, an AMD Athlon 64 processor would be ideal simply because of its raw number-crunching performance.

Similarly, people whose work involves 3D applications, image or video manipulation, that is, multimedia, should also go for an AMD processor. The high bandwidth between the CPU and memory gives them a good boost in these applications.

For media encoding or decoding tasks such as ripping movies to DivX, MP3 conversions, and the like, the Pentium 4 line, with its long pipelines, SSE 3 instructions and higher clock speeds are ideal.

If you are a gamer, we recommend the fastest AMD Athlon 64 processor available. Though the Pentium 4 3.2 GHz beats the Athlon 64 3000 in the Half-Life 2 test, it does so simply because of the 1.2 GHz speed advantage the Pentium has over the Athlon 64 3000 . Moving to a slightly higher-clocked Athlon 64 will paint a completely different picture.

Motherboards
Two-and-half years ago, Intel, VIA and SiS were the only companies involved in the manufacturing of chipsets-the group of logic circuits that controls the functioning of a motherboard. Intel developed chipsets for their own processors, and their portfolio was perfectly tailored to suit the needs of their processors. On the other hand, solutions from VIA and SiS included chipsets for Intel as well as AMD processors, like the KM400, KT400A, SIS760 and others. nVidia and ATi have since joined this elite club of chipset manufacturers and now, with five companies offering chipsets, choosing the right motherboard is a challenge.

Amidst the transition the PC industry is going through, buying a motherboard based on older technology should be avoided at all costs. This section will shed light on how to tackle this transition. Here we help you choose the right motherboard that not only gives you the best performance but also provides enough headroom for upgrades.

The motherboards have first been divided on the basis of platform, namely Intel and AMD, and further classified according to chipset. Let us first uncover some facts about Intel chipsets.
 
Intel Motherboards
Motherboards based on Intel's platform have always been known for their stability, performance and reliability. This is to be attributed to the fact that Intel's chipsets are perfectly tailored to their processors. While some years ago, it was only Intel who manufactured chipsets for their own processors, VIA, SiS, and now nVidia have joined in to give consumers a variety to choose from.

In fact, VIA was the first to realise the performance gain of DDR RAM and brought it to the Intel platform before Intel could do so with their chipsets.

Intel, with their 810 and 815 chipsets for the Pentium 3 processor, made on-board graphics popular, especially in India where the majority of the PCs sold have on-board graphics. The 845 chipset further improved graphics performance. VIA and SiS did bring good competing products, but lost ground to Chipzilla's marketing muscle.

Greater demand for on-board graphics spurred Intel to introduce the i865 and i875 chipsets, the former targeted towards price-sensitive users, the latter meant as the performance chipset.

By this time, graphics card leaders nVidia and ATi realised the potential market Intel had tapped into by including a graphics chip on board their chipsets. This heralded the birth of the ATi RS350 PRO chipset with better onboard graphics than Intel's chipset.

Last year, Intel introduced the i915 and 925X chipsets, which were completely new platforms designed from the ground up, offering new features and revising some specifications to handle today's media-savvy world.

What's On Offer
If you want to buy an Intel-based system, the market offers motherboards based on the i845, i865, i875, i915, i925 and RS350 chipsets. Asus, MSI, Gigabyte, Mercury, HIS, Krypton are the brands you will come across. Let's understand the pros and cons of each chipset.

i845
The 845 chipset is the oldest available chipset in the market. It is generally used in motherboards that do not cost more than Rs 4,000, and hence, we will treat it as out of the scope of this article, since we are primarily looking at mid-range motherboards.

Systems based on this chipset are good for Internet browsing and Word processing-nothing too computationally intensive.

i865 and i875
Both these chipsets are relatively new and have enough juice to hold their own against newer Intel chipsets. However, since they lack PCI-Express, they may become obsolete too soon. The difference between the two chipsets is that the i865 is aimed at the value-conscious buyer looking for an onboard graphics solution, whereas the i875P chipset offers better performance.

One point to remember is that motherboards based on these chipsets use the older Socket 478 processors. In fact, ATi's RS350 is also built around the Socket 478 processor, and hence the new LGA processors won't fit on these motherboards.

i915 and i925
This brand-new chipset family from Intel is loaded with features-some new, some logical and some revised to meet current standards. But the highlight is the introduction of the PCI-Express bus for discrete graphics cards and other peripherals. Nearly all motherboards based on these two chipsets will have an x16 PCIe slot for a graphics card and two or more x1 PCIe lanes in addition.

These chipsets also support the new DDR II standard, the memory runs at 533MHz-133 MHz faster than the fastest DDR memory. On the integrated graphics front, the 915 chipset boasts of DirectX 9.0 compliance, and is capable of hooking up to an HDTV or to widescreen LCD monitors.

Most importantly, improved onboard graphics have been introduced so that a platform based on this chipset complies with Microsoft's upcoming Longhorn OS' minimum requirements.

On the storage side, the new chipsets have legacy support for four SATA drives and one ATA drive. If the motherboard uses the ICH6R Southbridge, it supports Intel's Matrix RAID technology too. Eight USB2.0 ports and a dedicated Gigabit network bus is an integral part of all motherboards, unless the motherboard manufacturer decides to cut down on cost.

The introduction of High-Definition Audio (Azalia) will be music to your ears! The new standard improves upon the older AC'97 and takes it further: you can connect 7.1 speakers directly to your motherboard; there's no need for an additional 7.1-channel soundcard. Most motherboards also have 'jack sensing' enabled, which ensures that incorrect wiring of speakers is a thing of the past.
Let The Tests Begin!
For the Intel platform, the motherboards fell within the Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 range. Asus, MSI, Gigabyte and AOpen managed to send us boards, most of them based on the 915G chipset. We did receive boards based on the RS350 and 865 chipsets, but we deferred to test them since they are based on the older socket 478 processors and would be obsolete soon. Of the seven boards based on 915G, MSI sent us three, Gigabyte two, while Asus managed to send one. Unfortunately, the AOpen was ruled out due to a malfunction.

Features
All these motherboards support the latest Pentium 4 800 MHz LGA 775 processors, clocked up to 3.8 GHz. Care must be taken while installing the processor, as the pins are on the motherboard socket. The heatsink/fan unit does not have a plastic retention mechanism like the one on older Socket 478 boards. So check the heatsink for proper contact with the processor after installation.

Gigabyte's GA-8I915G-MF and MSI 915G Neo 2 score high for their clean and unhindered layout-no capacitors near the processor area. MSI provides a unique CPU installation clip so as to avoid damage to the motherboard socket.

MSI's 915G combo and Gigabyte's GA-8I915G Duo support the DDR and DDR II standards. Both these boards have four slots-two each for DDR and DDR II-to ensure dual-channel memory support. The Platinum series boards from MSI only support the DDR II standard, whereas the Asus P5GD1-VM and Gigabyte GA-8I915G-MF support DDR 400 MHz as well.

Since most 915 boards use the ICH6 Southbridge, almost all boards support SATA drives. However, MSI's Platinum boards use the ICH6R Southbridge, thus adding RAID 0, 1, 0 1 and Intel's Matrix RAID capability to the storage sub-system. If you plan to use the system for I/O intensive work, requiring faster data transfers and reliability, you might want to look at these boards; otherwise the above are just extra features that you won't use.

While SATA is increasing in presence, support for older IDE connectors is still in place. The Southbridge still supports one IDE drive, and hence, connecting your old CD-ROM is not a problem-yet. The ASUS P5GD1-VM and Gigabyte GA-8I915G-MF have just one IDE connector, whereas MSI's Platinum boards and Gigabyte's GA-8I915G Duo have three-one via the Southbridge, and the other two, RAID-capable, via a third-party controller, namely the VIA VT-6410.

Since MSI's 915P Neo 2 Platinum is based on the 'P' version of the 915 chipset, it lacks an onboard video controller, while the other boards have an integrated GMA 900 video chip. Every board in this mini round-up features the x16 PCI-Express lane for plugging a discrete video card, if you need to play high-end games. Except for the Asus P5GD1-VM with just one x1 PCI-Express slot, all the other boards featured a minimum of two x1 lanes.

On the peripherals side, all motherboards now come with eight USB2.0 ports and Gigabit network adapters for faster data transfer. FireWire ports still evade the motherboards in general, with only the Platinum series motherboards from MSI featuring them.

As for the sound system, all boards had onboard support for Intel's High Definition 7.1- channel audio. Almost all boards feature PCI slots for those older sound cards and network cards.

What we can conclude from this is that no motherboard comes close to the MSI 915G and 915P Neo 2 Platinum in terms of features offered. Gigabyte's GA-8I915G Duo and MSI's 915G Combo combine assorted features so as to keep the cost down. Asus' P5GD1-VM and the Gigabyte's GA-8I915G-MF have all the essential features.

Performance
Let's take one benchmark at a time to see how each motherboard fared.

Content Creation 2004
MSI's 915G Neo 2 does a great job, returning a score of 33. Close on its heels is its sibling, the 915P Neo 2. Third place is taken by Asus' P5GD1-VM. Gigabyte's GA-8I915G0MF scored 17 per cent less than MSI's top board. All this shows that MSI's 915G Neo 2 has a well-oiled sub-system.

PCMark 2004
This test suite is also a system-level benchmark, testing both the processor and I/O performance.

The CPU Sub-system
MSI's 915G Neo 2 was way ahead of the other boards when it came to the CPU sub-system, and the CPU sub-system was the reason for this board's good performance in the Content Creation test.

Overall, the results are pretty similar with second place once again going to the MSI 915P Neo 2, third place being secured by Asus' P5GD1-VM. Both the Gigabyte boards are in the last spot. A point to observe is that the performance of the GA-8I915G-MF board is nearly 12 per cent poorer than MSI's 915G Neo 2 in the CPU sub-system test, resulting in the low Content Creation score.

The I/O Sub-system
In the I/O sub-system, Gigabyte's GA-8I915G Duo gains over MSI's Platinum boards by a small margin. MSI's 915G Combo, without a doubt, has a poor I/O subsystem, a fact reflected in its Content Creation score. Asus' P5GD1-VM also scores less on the I/O. These are not the boards to look at if your work involves image or video manipulation.

Memory Test
Gigabyte's GA-8I915G Duo again scored over the MSI Platinum motherboards-by a small margin of 0.22 per cent. Asus' P5GD1-VM and MSI 915G Combos were right at the bottom of the score sheet, suggesting a CPU-memory link inferior to the Gigabyte board.

Half-Life 2
Half-Life 2 scales well with processor performance. Since MSI's 915P Neo 2 did well on the PCMark CPU score, it came as no surprise when the board offered the best performance for this game. This is further confirmed when you consider the Gigabyte GA-8I915G-MF right at the bottom of the graph-it fared rather poorly in its CPU tests. Second place was taken by MSI's other Platinum offering, while third place went to Gigabyte's GA-8I915G Duo.

DOOM 3
Except for the MSI 915G Neo 2 that scored 27 fps, all other boards were stuck at 26.9. The results do not imply that the MSI 915G Neo is significantly better than the rest. It does show that the game was GPU-bound, and hence the scaling did not occur as expected.

In Conclusion
MSI's 915G Neo 2 and 915P Neo 2 Platinum boards were the best of the lot. Both boards performed equally well on all counts, and have good sub-systems that don't bog down when stressed. Moreover, their feature lists are endless, and a very generous package makes them excellent buys.

When you bring price to the equation, the GA-8I915G Duo comes out on top. At Rs 6,000, the Duo is priced at Rs 6,000, which is Rs 4,000 less than the MSI Platinum boards. Despite its relatively poor performance, the GA-8I915G-MF scores higher than the other boards simply because of its price. At Rs 5,300, the GA-8I915G-MF is priced nearly 50 per cent less than MSI's Platinum boards.

This, however, cannot take away the accolades that the MSI platinum series boards deserve. If you want the best motherboard for the Intel platform and don't mind the extra price, go for one of the MSI boards.

THE AMD Platform
VIA, SiS and nVidia are the only vendors that manufacture chipsets for the AMD platform. While PCI-Express has made it to mainstream boards on Intel platforms, it hasn't quite made inroads into the AMD platform yet. A majority of the chipsets supporting AMDs still use AGP and PCI.

The AMD Athlon line is segmented on the basis of its interface socket: AMD has different chipsets supporting the 754-pin Athlon 64 and the 939-pin Athlon XP. A point to remember is that a system based on the 939-pin Athlon processor is relatively expensive compared to a 754-pin system. Since we are here focusing on a mid-range system, we will concentrate only on the 754 chipsets, and not the ones supporting 939-pin processors.

The majority of motherboards available for the Socket 754 Athlon 64 processors are either based on VIA's K8T800 or nVidia's nForce3 250 GB chipset. Both these chipsets are almost at par with respect to the features they offer. Remember that the socket 754 processors have a single-channel memory controller; dual-channel is found only in 939-processors. These two chipsets are generally used in the higher spectrum of the mid-range boards.

Motherboards based on these usually cost upwards of Rs 6,000. The SiS 760GX chipset also supports 754-pin Athlons, and it provides integrated video, which the former two chipsets lack.

Looking To The Future
As mentioned earlier, PCI-Express has yet to make a prominent appearance on the AMD circuit. That day, though, is not far away. nVidia and ATi have already launched chipsets supporting PCI-Express, and ATi has already made it to the Indian market, ATi launched their Radeon Xpress 200 chipset featuring PCI-Express technology for the AMD platform. Currently, only MSI has products based on this chipset-the others are expected to follow soon. Note that this chipset only supports 939-pin Athlon processors, which are expensive.

Since they don't come under the purview of this article, we shall discuss them in a forthcoming article.

nVidia has launched their nForce4 chipset with SLI technology, but it will take a while for that technology to show up.
The Comparison
So which is the best motherboard to go with an AMD 754-pin processor? To decide this, we tested the five AMD, three Asus, one MSI and one Gigabyte boards that arrived in our lab. Of these five boards, three were based on nVidia's nForce 3 250 GB chipset, and one each on VIA's K8T800 and the SiS 760GX. Let's begin with features first, and then turn our attention to performance.

Features
All these boards support AMD 754-pin processors up to the maximum speed available. On the memory front, since the memory controller is integrated into the processor core, it determines the speed of the memory; in this case, it is DDR 400 MHz.

In other words, all these boards support DDR 400 MHz memory in single-channel mode only. Here, the HyperTransport bus is capped at 800 MHz, which otherwise runs at 1000 MHz for 939-pin processors. Except for the SiS chipset, all boards support 3 GB of memory; the Asus K8S-MX can support a maximum of 2 GB.

All the boards have two IDE connectors that can connect four IDE devices. Asus' K8V-SE Deluxe has gone one step further, offering one extra IDE connector for RAID. MSI's K8N Neo Platinum and Asus' K8V-SE have four SATA ports, whereas the K8N-E Deluxe can support up to six SATA drives in RAID 0, 1, 0 1 and JBOD functionalities. Gigabyte's GA-K8NS and the Asus K8S-MX support two SATA drives, and are limited to RAID 0 and 1 capabilities.

Except for the ASUS K8S-MX, which has an integrated video chip based on the SiS 760GX chipset, no other board has an onboard video controller.

The Asus K8N-E and K8V-SE, and MSI's K8N Neo Platinum motherboards have FireWire ports. Eight USB 2.0 ports are supported by almost all the motherboards; however, only four to six are on the back panel, and the rest are available via headers on the board.

On the Intel side, we have seen that the Gigabit network adapter is present on all 915-chipset-based motherboards; however, on the AMD platform, only the Deluxe or Platinum series boards have them, while the rest use the older 10/100 standard. If you transfer huge files over the network, or if you are a movie-editing house or an E-learning developer, ensure that Gigabit Ethernet is supported by your motherboard.

Six-channel audio is present on almost all motherboards, and these were no exception. We did not compare the fidelity offered by either these boards or by the Intel boards that support High-Definition Audio, and hence cannot comment on the sound quality.

Five PCI slots are common on these boards, but the Asus K8S-MX had only two since it is based on a micro-ATX form factor.

MSI's K8N Neo Platinum sported the best component layout. In fact, the layout was completely different from the norm. The processor area was free of all intruding capacitors, and the storage ports were placed perfectly for hindrance-free operation. The component layout on the Asus K8V-SE Deluxe is also nice-a similar approach is visible on Gigabyte's GA-K8NS. Due to its small form factor, the layout on the Asus K8S-MX was a little cramped.

The Deluxe and Platinum tags ought to tell you that the package is packed with features. And this was true, as Asus' K8N-E Deluxe, MSI's K8N Neo Platinum and Asus' K8V-SE Deluxe were generous on their packaging and features.

Performance
Having taken a look at the feature set these motherboards offer, let's move on to the benchmarks and see how the chipsets performed.

Multimedia Content Creation 2004
MSI's K8N Neo Platinum topped in this system-level benchmark, indicating that this board has what it takes to be the best and does not bog down when all sub-systems are stressed. Gigabyte's GA-K8NS is off-target by a very small margin from the leader, MSI. The remaining Asus boards put up a relatively decent showing, with the difference between the Asus K8V-SE and the MSI K8N Neo not being more than 10 per cent.

PCMark 2004 CPU Sub-system
In the CPU test, the ASUS K8N-E Deluxe emerged on top, displacing the MSI K8N Neo Platinum to the second position-albeit only by a small margin of 0.5 per cent. The race for third place was close: Gigabyte's GA-K8NS managed to edge ahead of the Asus K8S-MX by an extremely small margin.

In the last slot was the Asus K8V-SE deluxe. The point to note here is that the top three were based on the nForce 3 250 GB, and it seems that this nVidia chipset has a good CPU sub-system. Between the VIA and SiS chipsets, it's hard to give a clear verdict since we had only one board per chipset.

PCMark 2004 Memory Sub-system
The results were pretty much the same again: Asus' K8N-E Deluxe took the top slot, to be closely followed by MSI's K8N Neo Platinum. The VIA chipset-powered Asus K8V-SE beat Gigabyte's GA-K8NS by a convincing margin, whereas the SiS-based Asus K8S-MX came in last.

For the memory sub-system, a lot depends up on the actual layout of the memory bus on the motherboard. Since the memory controllers for some of the Athlons are on the processors, the difference that is seen is due to the physical routing of the memory bus rather than anything else.

Performance Of The I/O Sub-systems
Asus' K8N-E Deluxe maintains its lead by a significant margin. Gigabyte's GA-K8NS takes the second position, while the ASUS K8S-MX is right on its tail. The Asus K8V-SE Deluxe loses out to these boards. Interestingly, the better-performing K8N Neo Platinum from MSI slips to last spot, thus that it is not the motherboard to be considered if your work involves lots of data processing.

Overall, we can conclude that the nForce 3 250 GB chipset is superior to the VIA and SiS solutions by a long shot.

3DMark 2003
In this benchmark, MSI's K8N Neo takes first place, displacing the ASUS K8N-E Deluxe. However, the difference is no more than 0.5 per cent, which can effectively be ignored. Gigabyte's GA-K8NS takes third position, and is closely followed by Asus' K8V-SE, while its cost-effective sibling, the K8S-MX, is put down where it belongs. This test once again proves the superiority of the nForce 3 chipset over its close competitor from VIA.

DOOM 3
With DOOM 3, Asus' K8N-E deluxe comes first. Asus' K8V-SE outshines Gigabyte's GA-K8NS to take the second slot. MSI's K8N Neo is on par with Gigabyte's board, whereas Asus' SiS connection once again fails to fire. Overall, all motherboards put up a good show here.

Conclusion
Going by pure performance, the competition between the ASUS K8N-E Deluxe and MSI's K8N Neo is close. However, the Asus surges ahead, by a small margin.

On the features front, both boards are on par, and that leaves us with price to decide who takes the crown. The MSI K8N Neo is about Rs 800 cheaper than the Asus K8N-E Deluxe. However, we think they both deserve accolades and are equally good solutions for AMD's socket 754 pin processor.

Summing It All Up
In our processor test, we witnessed AMD's Athlon64 processor take the steam out of the Pentium 4 series of processors. If you want the best performance, nothing beats the Athlon 64 line.

In the motherboard test, we saw the successful inception of PCI-Express on the Intel platform, which was not the case with AMD-the platform still relies on the AGP and PCI standards. While it might seem logical to invest in an Intel solution for the sake of PCI-Express, it is important to note that devices for this new bus will take time to be widely available. Currently only graphics cards are available for the PCI-Express bus. Since AGP is prevalent in current systems, it will take the better part of two years, if not more, for the technology to make a complete shift to PCI-Express. Hence, even after two years, the AMD system you buy today will be upgradeable-to certain extent.

So what is the ideal motherboard-processor combination? We are of the opinion that the AMD platform, once again, offers the most value for money. The performance of an AMD system is way ahead of Intel's competing products, is on equal footing as per features, and costs less.
We award the Athlon64 3000 and ASUS K8N-E Deluxe or MSI K8N Neo Platinum as the best buy Gold solution. This combo in conjunction with appropriate components will work great for gamers, for professional artists using resource-intensive applications such as Photoshop, 3D Max, Maya, etc, and will cost no more than Rs 15,000.

If you are on a shoestring budget and Rs 15,000 is too much to spend, go for the AMD Sempron 3100 and ASUS K8S-MX. This combo will cost around Rs 11,000. Since the board has integrated video and an AGP slot, you can opt to save on cost, and at the same time, have the option of upgrading later. This combination wins our best buy Silver award.

For the 'Intel Inside' devotees, the Pentium 4 530 (3 GHz) combined with Gigabyte's 8I915G Duo makes the ideal motherboard-processor combo at Rs 17,000. Overall, on a performance-and-features scale, this combination lies somewhat between our Gold and Silver awardees, but costs more.



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