If you want the newest CPU, graphics and storage technologies, you'll need a motherboard that can support them all. Here, we look at what you should look for and how well the budget motherboards stack up.
Buying a new motherboard can bring you the useful technologies that your PC is missing. Faster, second-generation Sata (serial ATA) connections, which currently reach 3Gbps (gigabits per second); gigabit ethernet; high-definition audio and even SLI or CrossFire dual-card graphics can be yours with a board costing £100 or less. We evaluated nine budget, standard-size ATX motherboards by building XP systems using each one and then running our WorldBench 5 real-world speed benchmark. We then installed Windows Vista Ultimate on each to check for any compatibility problems.
We reviewed both Intel and AMD-based motherboards. The AMD models were based around AMD's socket AM2, which is designed for use with AMD chips requiring DDR2 memory. The Intel motherboards use socket LGA775, which is suitable for dual-core and quad-core processors. Performance varied very little within each type so, once you decide on either an AMD or an Intel CPU (central processing unit), selecting a board largely comes down to assessing its features.
Best of the bunch
Of the Intel-based boards our top choice is the Asus P5N-E SLI, which costs around £80. The only model we looked at featuring nVidia's nForce 650i SLI x8 chipset, this did just about everything well. It still has a few minor weaknesses, however: Asus provides only three analogue outputs on the back panel, which limits you to five speakers – 5.1-channel sound rather than 7.1 – unless you use the rear-panel digital coaxial connection or internal analogue audio header.
The second-ranked ECS nForce 570 SLIT-A (version 5.1) impressed us with its attractive £49 price tag. But it uses an older nForce 570 SLI x8 chipset and is the only motherboard here that lacks a FireWire port of any kind.
Among the AMD-based boards, the GA-M59SLI-S5 from Gigabyte won our Best Buy award, combining state-of-the-art and legacy peripheral ports with a good price at £100.
Power users with AMD leanings should note that overclocking is the raison d'être of the Abit Fatal1ty AN9 32X, the Asus Crosshair and the Sapphire Pure CrossFire PC-AM2RD580. All three boards provide every Bios-tweaking option you could possibly wish for.