by February 8, 2001 0 comments

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.

Final scores 

Boards with external graphics/Socket A boards:
Features 200
Performance 100
Price 100
Total 400
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:
Features 100
Performance 200
Price 200
Total 500
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.

Test criteria

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.

Performance

For the boards with external graphics, the application
distribution and benchmarks used were:

  1. High-end
    productivity applications: Indy3D from Sense8 and High-end Winstone99

  2. Graphics and gaming
    capabilities: VideoMark 2000, 3DWinbench 2000, and Quake III Arena at
    resolutions of 800×600 and 1,024×768 with both 16 and 32-bit color depths at
    75 Hz refresh rate

  3. Entertainment: Here,
    we used eJay MP3 application to convert a 100 MB WAV file to MP3. The time
    for conversion was recorded

  4. Normal Productivity
    work: Business Winstone99.

For boards with onboard graphics, the application distribution
and benchmarks used were:

  1. Normal productivity
    applications: Business Winstone99

  2. Gaming: 3Dmark2000

  3. Graphics sub-system:
    Videomark2000

  4. 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.

Features

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.

1.  Setup:

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

  1. 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

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. 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

  6. 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.

Price

Here, the price and warranty of all motherboards were considered.

Anil Chopra

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