With promises of 35W Athlon 64 desktop CPUs, RAM speeds of up to 1066MHz and the awesome FX-62, the new socket from AMD should appeal to everyone. And with prices ranging from $120 to $339, there’s a board here to cover every pocket. AM2 isn’t just about the theoretical performance boosts of switching to DDR2 RAM; it’s the new socket for all AMD CPUs for the next two years or so - from the AM2 Sempron 3000+ for $120
up to the Athlon 64 FX-62 for more than $1500.
If you’re on a budget, the ECS RS485M-M
is a good start. It’s the only board here that doesn’t sport one of NVIDIA’s new Nforce 500-series chipsets, instead plumping for ATi’s Xpress 1100. Strictly speaking, this is a mobile chipset, with power saving its main focus. The RS485M-M may lack features, with only two RAM sockets and no FireWire support, but it’s got a 300MHz Radeon X300 GPU, giving you enough power for Vista’s Premium Aero Glass interface. However, you do get an ageing AC97 audio codec and minimal bundle. Still, being microATX, it can form the basis of a small system.
The rest of the boards use either the high-end Nforce 590 or 570 chipsets. One such example is the MSI K9N SLI Platinum
, which also comes with a generous bundle. Even with an early BIOS, performance was excellent - just like all the Nforce boards - and the layout is pleasingly logical. The three PCI and two PCI Express 1x slots offer good expandability, both now and for the future. With the six SATA ports, there’s plenty of storage potential, especially with the new version of MediaShield. The sensible arrangement of ATX power connectors makes for a tidy case too, while you have a FireWire and three USB headers along the bottom for extra ports and expansion. It’s an attractively-priced, well-featured and high-performance board that deserves the runner-up award this month.
Unfortunately, that’s to the detriment of the Abit K9N SLI
and Gigabyte GA-M57SLI-S4
, both of which are light on extras while being only slightly cheaper. Judged on board layout alone, there isn’t much to hold either back, so if the prices drop further, have a look. Both arrange the two power connectors to the top and right for tidy case internals, and all the drive connectors are sensibly placed on the right near your drive bays.
However, there are only two PCI slots on both, and the Abit has only two PCI Express slots to the Gigabyte’s three. Gigabyte’s backplane also offers serial, parallel and coaxial S/PDIF ports.
The Foxconn C51XEM2AA
, built to NVIDIA’s reference design, offers FirstPacket, DualNet and MediaShield. It’s also the only board here to employ active cooling for the chipset. The layout has eccentricities, but is generally good. The 24-pin ATX power connector is at the top right, with the six SATA and one parallel/ATA connection. The FireWire and two USB headers are accessibly arranged along the bottom. At the back, you’ll find six USB 2 ports as well as one each for FireWire 400 and 800. However, there’s only one fan header. The slot arrangement is also odd, with two PCI, one PCI Express 1x, plus an unusual PCI Express 4x slot present.
The Asus M2N32-SLI Deluxe
board also has a PCI Express 4x slot, leaving room for only two PCI and one PCI Express. However, there are plenty of integrated devices, the headline being a 802-11a/b/g mini-card on the backplane. This is one of the fullest here with an external SATA data connection (but no power), plus FireWire, four USB 2 and two Gigabit Ethernet connections.
Asus uses the higher-end Nforce 590 chipset, so you get dual PCI Express 16x graphics slots, although not all of the features listed to the right are present in the current BIOS. There’s no DualNet or FirstPacket, for example, which is a shame. However, Asus compensates for this with its own AI Net 2, which offers the same teaming and fail-over capabilities. It also goes one better than the rest of the audio codecs on offer, using a SoundMAX ADI AD1988B chip, which is Vista Premium compliant. This can be coupled with the dual microphone also bundled. Our only criticism is the awkward placing of the four-pin 12V power connector, but with such speed and features on offer it’s our choice of the current crop of boards.