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.
Choosing a CPU
Tests show that Intel's Core 2 Duo chip has shoved AMD's processors into the back seat in terms of performance
Our Intel test bed used a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo E6700, which is worth around £260. If you want maximum performance, buy a top-of-the-line Core 2 Duo or even a quad-core chip. If you don't want to pay Formula 1 prices and are content with mere stock-car racing get-up-and-go, opt for an AMD processor or a cheaper, second-tier Intel CPU.
If you're a high-resolution gaming fan, graphics support will certainly affect your choice of motherboard. Several of our test models have two PCI Express x16 slots, which together will support two graphics cards. However, the x16 slots on the nVidia 570- and 650i-based boards function at only x8 when operating in dual-graphics card (SLI) mode.
You can use any brand of PCI Express graphics card in these systems if you want only a single-card setup. However, when doubling up, you must use nVidia cards in SLI motherboards and ATI cards in CrossFire boards.
Dual-card graphics are overkill at a resolution of 1,280x1,024 pixels or less, but they will improve 3D graphics performance as you increase the resolution beyond that point. In our tests, the three boards with Intel's P965 chipset all have a single PCI Express x16 slot.
Although we recommend getting a separate graphics card for gaming, integrated graphics are adequate for most other uses. Just be sure you choose a motherboard that has a PCI Express x16 slot so that you can add a graphics card later as required.
Shifts in storage
Every motherboard in our round-up has a floppy disk drive connector, and many of them include drivers on floppy disk. Pata (parallel ATA) drive support is universal, although only Asus' P5N-E SLI offered more than one connector.
Pata support persists, despite Intel's decision to drop it from the P965/ICD8DH chipset which overlooked the fact that most current internal disc writers are Pata-based. Not only does no performance advantage accrue from replacing a Pata burner with a same-speed Sata (serial ATA) drive, but vendors have been slow to introduce Sata burners.
Dropping Pata simply forced P965 motherboard vendors, Intel included, to add an auxiliary Pata controller.
State-of-the-art 3Gbps (gigabits per second) Sata is universal in the boards in our round-up, as is Raid (redundant array of independent disks). The latter is a provision for hard-disk failure whereby data is automatically saved on a secondary hard disk.
Every motherboard offers both Raid 0 – in which data is split or striped evenly across drives for increased performance – and Raid 1, in which one drive's contents are mirrored on another. Each board supports Raid 5, where data is striped across at least three drives with parity protection, or a combination of Raid 0 and 1 – a striped and mirrored pair requiring four drives.
Most of the motherboards include at least six internal Sata ports and some have an eSata (external Sata) connector.
This feature allows you to hook up an external Sata drive – something that's still rare, despite this technology being faster than USB or FireWire.
The Intel-based Asus P5N-E SLI motherboard features a single back-panel eSata port, while Asus' Crosshair and P5N32-E SLI both offer two. As an alternative, each model we tested allows you to connect eSata drives using internal Sata connectors with an expansion bracket. In fact, Gigabyte bundled just such a bracket with its GA-M59SLI-55 boards. However, dedicated rear-panel ports save you the hassle.
Although each motherboard in our round-up uses PCI Express, with its greater data throughput and better bandwidth sharing, all of the boards still support the older PCI technology. Each provides four memory slots split between two channels, plus support for up to DDR2 800 memory. The only exception is the ECS nForce 570 SLIT-A, which handles memory with clock speeds of only up to DDR2 667.
As you might expect, USB 2.0 connectivity is ubiquitous: every board has the capability for at least eight USB 2.0 ports; most have 10. Generally, half the USB and FireWire ports on a motherboard will be accessible externally, on the back panel, while the other half are provided in the form of headers (arrays of pins) to which you can attach either expansion brackets or leads for connections that are built into your computer case.
If you're likely to need to connect older peripherals, such as parallel or serial printers, scanners, PDAs or other items, check that your chosen motherboard has the necessary connections. Several models in our round-up lack such legacy ports. The Abit AB9 Pro and Asus P5N32-E SLI provide serial port headers, while the Asus P5N-E SLI has coupled a serial port header with a back-panel parallel port.
Gigabit ethernet is now universal – expect to see it on any board you buy. Most models we tested – Abit's AB9 Pro and Fatal1ty AN9 32X, Asus' Crosshair and P5N32-E SLI, Gigabyte's GA-M59SLI-S5 and MSI's K9A Platinum – offer two LAN (local area network) connections.
This allows you to connect to two networks at the same time, or to grab double the bandwidth. The nVidia-based motherboards supply DualNet channel bonding, providing features such as load balancing and TCP/IP acceleration for faster web-browsing.
Each motherboard we tested delivers extremely high-quality audio reproduction. This is because all the boards implement Intel's High Definition Audio standard. Hardware that conforms to this standard can produce up to 7.1-channel audio, 24bit output (32bit internal processing) and 192KHz sound. This newer standard provides substantially better audio quality than the older AC'97 specification's maximum output of 20bit, 48KHz sound.
To take advantage of the more advanced, newer audio capability, you must have content that has been encoded at the higher quality level – for example, songs recorded on to DVD-Audio. You will also need High Definition Audio software that can play it.
However, the boards implement the standard in slightly different ways. The Realtek 885 or 883 chip found in the AB9 Pro, P5N-E SLI, nForce 570 SLIT-A, GA-M59SLI-S5 and the MSI Platinum is rated at an excellent 106dB signal-to-noise ratio. This is a very good indicator of the overall quality of the digital-analogue/analogue-digital converters. A high number means you'll hear less background noise during quiet musical passages or when cranking up the volume.
The ADI1988 chip in the Asus Crosshair provides a signal-to-noise ratio of 105dB, while the chips in the other motherboards we tested are rated at 95dB when playing 24bit audio. You should expect about 6dB less with 16bit usage.
There aren't that many slots on the budget motherboards we tested, but with multichannel audio, FireWire and Sata now integrated on to most boards, the need for slots has diminished. Most users will probably never install anything on to their motherboard other than a graphics card or a modem and the latter is readily available in PCIe x1 form. However, we must point out that advanced audio, video-capture, FireWire 800 and other dedicated cards are often PCI-based. If your needs are fairly high-end, bear in mind the number of PCI slots you will require when you make a purchase.
All the boards provide extensive Bios overclocking features. Options include the ability to run the CPU and bus faster and to increase voltages to keep components stable at the faster speeds. The Abit Fatal1ty AN9 32X and the Asus Crosshair offer exceptional tweakability – the Crosshair even has a fan-speed boost.
Working the boards
In our tests Windows Vista ran successfully on all the motherboards. The Aero interface functioned perfectly on each of our contenders. However, Asus' Crosshair required a Bios update to alleviate periods of seeming inactivity as we installed Vista.
Under Vista, we also experienced some minor 'unknown device' issues, mostly with some motherboards' ACPI (advanced configuration and power interface), which controls hibernation, sleep and other power-management features.
Utility and tweaking software proved another sticky issue under Vista. The majority of the bundled Windows-based monitoring and overclocking applications wouldn't install or run on our test systems.
The Sapphire had no Windows-based utilities, while the Asus' Probe II monitoring and AI Boost overclocking programs ran well, even though the main setup program didn't. However, motherboard-tweaking software often undergoes a lengthy revision process before all the bugs are worked out. A noticeable trend with the more expensive boards is the use of heat-pipe cooling, which draws heat away from components and towards additional heatsinks located near the CPU fan. This reduces noise and keeps components cool. The Fatal1ty AN9 32X and Crosshair, P965 Platinum feature this innovation, as does the Gigabyte motherboard.
Our complaints about the motherboards' design and layout are minimal. Indeed, most relate to initial setup chores. The IDE (integrated drive electronics) connectors on the K9A Platinum and the Crosshair sit near their 24-pin power connectors, which makes it hard to insert both cables. Cables connected to the Crosshair's Pata port and two of its Sata ports interfere with the insertion of long PCI Express graphics cards such as the GeForce 7800.
The Asus P5N-E SLI's IDE connectors lie parallel to the motherboard itself, which makes it difficult to attach cables. However, once connected the cables are tucked nicely out of the way. The Sapphire Pure CrossFire PC-AM2RD580 has a similar IDE setup.
The ECS nForce 570 SLIT-A's front-panel header gives no indication of where to attach the power and reset buttons, activity LEDs and so on. The worst design flaw we spotted, however, was the Sapphire's use of first-generation, rimless Sata connectors. These produce a worryingly loose connection compared with the rimmed types used on every other motherboard we tested.
If you're into bling or cool workbench diagnostic features, several of the motherboards here will catch your attention. The Abit Fatal1ty, the Asus Crosshair and the Sapphire Pure CrossFire are all decked out with LEDs that gleam in the dark. The back-mounted blue LCD of the Crosshair is snazzy, as are the backlit reset and power buttons. And we were impressed with this board for lighting the labels of the back-panel USB, eSata and other ports. Asus offers a nice touch with all its motherboards: the QConnector is a removable adaptor that you can pull out of the case and hold in your hand while you attach power, reset and speaker wires, or plug the adaptor into a motherboard header. It's much easier than fumbling around inside a dark, cramped case. While you're examining motherboard options, consider what other parts you'll need to upgrade or build your own PC. For help visit Upgrade Advisor.