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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

What We Look for When Testing Motherboards

When the Maximum PC Lab reviews motherboards, we focus our testing efforts upon two variables: speed and reliability. These are the two most important attributes of any mobo.

Beyond sheer performance and stability—one of the leading causes of crash-prone computers is poor-quality mobos—we also evaluate the devices and capabilities that have been integrated onto the motherboard. These days, we expect to see a bare minimum of four native Serial ATA ports, Gigabit Ethernet, and decent audio output onboard the mobos we review.

Although we frown upon onboard audio and video, we still evaluate these integrated components; if it's there, after all, it needs to be judged.

Lately, we've been enthused to see that motherboards are beginning to integrate onboard RAID and even wireless access points. Some mobos we've seen even feature built-in firewalls.

One final, but significantly smaller category we judge is appearance. With the prevalence of clear-sided and transparent cases on the market, looks mean a lot to some people, so we make sure to identify which mobos sport nice-looking colors and much sought-after bling.

Mobo Buying Tips

On the market for a new motherboard? Or maybe you're just curious? Follow our advice and you'll never go astray. You also won't waste any money.

Most important features: Chipset aside, there are certain basic features you should look for in any P4 motherboard. For one, you'll want support for dual-channel DDR400 memory. When sticks of memory are installed in pairs in a dual-channel-capable motherboard, the effective memory bandwidth of the system is doubled. This nifty trick works with standard DDR memory—no expensive special memory is required. The Pentium 4 processor thirsts for the bandwidth afforded by dual-channel DDR; when sandbagged by single-channel memory, the P4 loses much of its performance edge.

Support considerations: You'll also want to make sure the motherboard you choose can support the CPUs of today and tomorrow. Don't even consider a mobo that can't get on the 800MHz bus or run a 3.2GHz Pentium 4, which is likely to be the final Northwood core CPU released. Other than that, look for a mobo that supports AGP 8x and features a retention clip to keep your videocard snug in its slot. Also, most motherboards released in the past few years feature a clean, jumperless design whereby key settings such as FSB speed are accessed through the BIOS. We still see evil mobos that use jumpers or DIP switches, so make sure you get one that's jumperless. Finally, insist on a board that offers USB 2.0 and FireWire I/O, so you'll have high-bandwidth connections to your MP3 player, digital camera, external hard drive, and any other peripherals you may have that support these high-bandwidth connections.

One final note: It's probably a good idea to avoid buying socket 940 mobos. By the time you read this, the pending shift to socket 939 will have rendered them obsolete.

AMD mobo considerations: For folks running one of AMD's 64-bit processors, which feature on-die memory controllers, memory support is contingent on the CPU rather than the chipset. Both the regular Athlon 64 and the faster Athlon 64 FX support DDR400 memory (and the FX offers dual-channel capability as well). For best results, don't use anything slower.

Intel mobo considerations: On the Intel front, you'll want to pair your Pentium 4 processor with dual-channel DDR400 memory for maximum performance. P4 chipsets offering dual-channel DDR400 support include Intel's 875P, 865PE, and 865G, ATI's Radeon 9100 IGP, VIA's PT600 and PT880, and SiS's 655FX. Of all these chipsets, only the 875P, 865PE, and Radeon 9100 IGP carry our recommendation.

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