When deciding upon a PC’s configuration, the processor normally heads the list. It is, however, not the only deciding factor. An equally important factor is the motherboard, which governs which processors will fit on it. The motherboard also decides the other capabilities of your machine, such as its upgradability, performance, and features. Given its importance, we’ll look at the various motherboards available in the market to help you choose the right one. We’ll also share with you the information that we found when we tested 27 motherboards in PCQ Labs.
|Boards with external graphics/Socket A boards:|
|Here, a user would expect a certain level of performance from the board, and would be willing to pay the price for it. That’s why more attention would be paid to the features.|
|Boards with onboard graphics:|
|Here, a buyer would be very price sensitive. At the same time he would want the best performance, while features would take a back seat|
All motherboards can be classified into two broad categories: those that have integrated graphics, and those that let you add your own graphics card. Earlier, graphics cards would fit into the PCI slot on the motherboard. This trend was later discontinued with the introduction of the AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) slot. AGP gave dedicated bandwidth to the graphics card, resulting in much better performance. With the growing popularity of AGP, Intel integrated this function in its chipsets, called the i810. Motherboards based on this chipset didn’t have an external graphics slot, making it impossible for anyone to upgrade to a better graphics card. Other players like SiS have also brought out similar boards in the market.
Whereas motherboards with integrated graphics can be used for routine office work, they’re not suitable for graphics’ intensive work. For this, there are boards with AGP slots that let you add a graphics card of your choice. Boards based on the Via chipset are quite popular in this category, be they for AMD or Intel-based processors. Intel also introduced another category of boards recently, based on the 815 chipset. These boards have both built-in graphics as well as an AGP slot.
Intel-based boards now come with Socket 370, which can take either a Celeron or a PIII processor. AMD-based boards have what’s called the Socket A, which can take either a Duron or an Athlon processor. The advantage of this feature is that you could buy an entry-level processor, and later upgrade it to a higher-end one without having to change the motherboard. However, you can’t have any cross linkages here, meaning you can’t use an Athlon board to house a PIII and vice versa.
As we can see, boards are becoming integrated with greater functionality. You could buy a board with an entry-level processor and use its onboard graphics. As your needs grow, you could change to a better processor and add a graphics card to turn it into a high-end mean machine.
Other important factors in a motherboard are the features it provides such as onboard sound, number of PCI slots, and maximum RAM. We took all these factors into account when testing the boards.
Going by the market trend, we divided the motherboards into two parts—those with onboard graphics (entry-level boards), and those with external capabilities (high-end boards). We tested the 815 chipset-based boards, which had both capabilities, in both categories.
For boards with external graphics, we used an Asus V7700 graphics card having a GeForce 2 GTS and 32 MB VRAM. A PIII/800 MHz processor, 128 MB SDRAM, and Seagate Barracuda ATA II hard drive accompanied this. Win 98 SE and Windows 2000 Professional were used for the tests. For boards with onboard graphics, we used a Celeron 600, 64 MB RAM, and the same hard drive as in the other category. Win 98 SE was the OS for benchmarks. For the testing, we had also received some Socket A boards. We tested these with an 800 MHz Athlon processor, which was provided to us by Zeta Technologies, Mumbai. Since Socket A boards use a different processor, we kept these motherboards in a separate category.
We used our three-axis model of price, performance, and features to compare all the motherboard and the Brown-Gibson model to calculate the weightages of all parameters. Here’s a break-up of the parameters we used.
For the boards with external graphics, the application distribution and benchmarks used were:
High-end productivity applications: Indy3D from Sense8 and High-end Winstone99
Graphics and gaming capabilities: VideoMark 2000, 3DWinbench 2000, and Quake III Arena at resolutions of 800x600 and 1,024x768 with both 16 and 32-bit color depths at 75 Hz refresh rate
Entertainment: Here, we used eJay MP3 application to convert a 100 MB WAV file to MP3. The time for conversion was recorded
Normal Productivity work: Business Winstone99.
For boards with onboard graphics, the application distribution and benchmarks used were:
Normal productivity applications: Business Winstone99
Graphics sub-system: Videomark2000
Audio performance: Only boards with onboard audio were considered in this category. We tested their audio capabilities using Audio WinBench. The benchmark measured the percentage CPU utilization caused by the audio sub-system.
Motherboards are getting richer in features. You have to know what they are to decide their importance. We considered the following features in their order of importance.
a. Quality of manuals: A good quality manual is a must-have for all motherboards as it tells you about its capabilities
b. Ease of installation: A motherboard should have a jumper-free mode so that it automatically detects your processor speeds and RAM. Its layout should be non-obstructive. We gave the motherboards with driver CDs that provided automated installation more marks. Similarly, motherboards with cables other than the bare minimum for hard drive, floppy drive, USB, etc, were awarded more points
Ports: Given the popularity of USB devices, a board must have at least two USB ports. Anything more than that got extra points, provided the board gave connector cables with them. PS/2 ports are also important as they make connecting your mouse and keyboard a breeze. Boards with two PS/2 ports got the highest marks
PCI slots: Motherboards should have at least three PCI slots. Despite the ongoing integration of critical elements on the motherboard, there are a lot of PCI devices in the market. So boards with more than three PCI slots were awarded more points
ATA 66/100 support: ATA 100 drives are becoming common, so a motherboard should be able to support them. These can give a maximum burst transfer rate of 100 MB/sec. So boards with ATA100 support got more points
Video: AGP 2x is the ongoing speed for graphics cards, but AGP 4x is fast becoming popular. A board should be ready for it whenever 4x cards become popular
Software bundle: Most motherboards come with the regular software like drivers, an anti-virus utility, and a monitoring utility. Boards that gave anything useful over and above these were given more points
Extras: Here we considered fringe features like AMR/CNR, and ISA slots. Some boards even had other ports for Digital Video Out, TV/LCD out, etc.
Here, the price and warranty of all motherboards were considered.