PERFORMANCE ANALYSIS : Motherboards
The Labs team delves into the guts of this month’s motherboards, and points out what you need to know to chose the right one for your needs.
The main component of a motherboard that determines the features it supports and its performance is the chipset. Boards with the same chipset may differ in terms of layout, BIOS features and accessories provided, but their performance is typically within a couple of percent of each other (which is virtually negligible in real world terms). For this reason we decided to group the boards by chipset in the reviews to make things easier to digest. As such, instead of presenting results for every motherboard in this Labs, we've given the results by chipset.
We benchmarked boards with SYSmark2002 and 3DMark2001SE Pro to give an indication of day-to-day computing strengths, plus 3D crunching abilities. Although some motherboards came with onboard graphics, we chose to benchmark with GeForce FX 5200 graphics cards with NVIDIA Detonator FX drivers (rev. 44.03).
Each machine had a fresh install of Windows XP Professional (with XP SP1 installed), the BIOS flashed to the latest revision, and the latest drivers installed. Each board was benchmarked with 256MB of Corsair DDR400 and when applicable this was dropped to 256MB of DDR333.
Intel boards were benchmarked with a 3.06GHz Pentium 4, and AMD boards with an Athlon XP 2700+ (2.166GHz). We did have a 3200+ (2.2GHz) in the test Labs, but at the time of testing support for the chip was sketchy, and it didn't run on many of the motherboards we tried, so we chose a processor that would be accepted across all the motherboards. We also tested with Hyper-Threading disabled in the Pentium 4 as some motherboards objected to this too. The lesson is to double check the manufacturer's Website as well as user forums for compatibility advice before you purchase. Most manufacturers will update the BIOS to support new products very soon after release.
Interestingly, the SiS655 chipset proved to be a strong contender, with high scores in both SYSmark2002 and 3DMark2001SE Pro, which is due to its dual-channel memory controller, AGP 8x and 1GHz Northbridge-Southbridge link.
The other SiS chipset, the 648, has been around for a while and is the oldest on review here, but it receives a performance boost from its enhanced memory controller that saw it take on the Intel and VIA chipsets.
An extremely interesting turn-out was the low-ish results for the Intel 875 and 875P chipsets. Although this chipset supports dual-channel memory architecture, and an 800MHz FSB, it was slow in 3DMark2001 SE Pro (with the 875P far outshining the 875 but behind the majority). In day-to-day tasks, 875 proved to be a decent powerhouse.
Intel's 'Granite Bay' e7205 chipset also has dual-channel memory controllers, but in this case it worked well returning high scores particularly in 3DMark2001 SE Pro.
The new Intel 865/865PE Springdale chipset turned out to be the one to watch. Although this chipset did not have the fastest or highest scores, it did return scores that were consistently high. It also allows for a lot of goodies, such as plenty of USB ports, SATA, 800MHz FSB and more. The inclusion of integrated graphics on some mode's is nice, but don't expect blazing results if you use this option.
The same goes for the NVIDIA nForce2 boards. Their onboard graphics performance is pedestrian, but even without this the chipset scored very low in all performance tests compared to the VIA KT400.
The chipset is only a building block for a motherboard, and although it determines what can and cannot be supported, it's up to the manufacturers to build their boards with the options they deem valuable.
The features score (right) for each motherboard is a conglomeration of points awarded for various features and functions. This included points for integrated audio, video and networking, upgradeability (such as PCI slots), RAM support and RAM slots available, frontside bus speeds, USB, FireWire, Ultra ATA speed, RAID, SATA ports included, AGP speed, and much more. All in all we awarded points for over 20 specifications. The chart to the right is a representation of the total feature points awarded to the motherboards.
In the reviews we've rated the motherboards on their quality (including warranty, layout, build quality etc), feature-set, value, which is derived from the quality and features scores with price factored in, and given an overall rating. As performance differences between boards with the same chipset is nominal (a few percent at most), we haven't included a Performance star rating (as all boards in the same chipset would have received the same score). Instead we have opted for a Quality star rating that reflects important factors such as the build quality and the layout of the board.
Regarding the terminology in this Labs, and all the different names out there for DDR-RAM, we've chosen to stick with the MHz rating for clarity's sake, and we're abandoning the bandwidth rating. This means 333MHz DDR RAM will be referred to as DDR333 instead of PC2700; and 400MHz DDR RAM as as DDR400, not PC3200. This also means we're not necessarily acknowledging the ratification issues surrounding memory standards. Always check with your motherboard manufacturer's site for RAM compliance before making a DDR RAM purchase.
Our thanks go to Achieva Technology (www.achieva.com.au) for lending us the testbench components.
Browse this article:
This Group Test appeared in the July, 2003 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine