OCC Roundup: Motherboards of 2007

hardnrg - 2007-12-10 11:26:56 in Motherboards
Category: Motherboards
Reviewed by: hardnrg   
Reviewed on: December 16, 2007

Introduction

So you want to build a new PC, eh? Maybe you want to buy something for yourself in the days leading up to Christmas to make the shopping days less depressing/stressful? Perhaps you are putting together a dream machine for your wife/kid/brother, or maybe you are getting a few pieces for the new system from Santa?

Whether you are buying now or waiting for Christmas money and the inevitable January sales, sooner or later you're going to have to make a choice on which motherboard to use. If you are an overclocker, you're going to want a BIOS that gives you control over the various voltages and timings to tweak your CPU and RAM to its full potential. If you are building a machine for use as a general/entertainment PC, you're going to want more features like onboard graphics to reduce noise and total cost, plenty of USB ports for all your peripherals, HDMI output for simple cabling, and so on.

In this roundup I'll be comparing the motherboards in two groups:

Group 1: Budget / Entry Level

 

Group 2: Mainstream / High End

 

In this way, the comparisons made will be relevant to the board's group, and the best board in each group will be the one that gives the most overall performance and features for the price. That's a fancy way of saying "the best bang for the buck".

 

The Contenders:

These are the motherboards in the first group:

 

Abit AN-M2HD
(AM2, mATX)
Asus Crosshair
(AM2, ATX)
ECS AMD690GM-M2
(AM2, mATX)
ECS G33T-M2
(LGA775, mATX)
Gigabyte GA-MA69G-S3H
(AM2, ATX)

 

 

 

The Contenders:

These are the motherboards in the second group:

 

 

Abit AW9D Max
(LGA775, ATX)
Abit IN9 32X-Max Wi-Fi
(LGA775, ATX)
Abit IP35 Dark Raider
(LGA775, ATX)
Abit IP35 Pro
(LGA775, ATX)
Abit IP35-E
(LGA775, ATX)
ASUS P5K Premium
(LGA775, ATX)
DFI Lanparty UT NF680i LT SLI-T2R
(LGA775, ATX)
ECS P35T-A
(LGA775, ATX)
Gigabyte GA-P31-DS3L
(LGA775, ATX)
XFX 680i LT SLI
(LGA775, ATX)
XFX 680i SLI
(LGA775, ATX)

 

 

 

Specifications & Features:

The details on the technical specifications and features of each motherboard can be viewed on the respective pages of their reviews.

Group 1: Budget / Entry Level

Group 2: Mainstream / High End

Head-to-head:

Whether you're trying to sustain decent framerates in the middle of a frantic gaming session, like the option of running large tasks in the background, such as video or audio encoding, dabble in a bit of photo retouching, or even just want to be able to browse the internet without delays, any use of a computer can benefit from the raw performance of the system. This performance can be attributed to the CPU, RAM, and motherboard. The CPU and RAM configurations were not always the same, so let's look at the reviews to see what results can be achieved.

 

Group 1: Budget / Entry Level - SiSoft Sandra - Processor Arithmetic

 

The systems seem quite similar in performance for integer calculations, apart from the Asus Crosshair, which has the disadvantage of being run with an X2 4200+ against X2 6000+ CPUs in the other AM2 boards. To its credit though, you can see the performance difference is scaled to tally with the AMD CPU performance rating (i.e. the processor name).

For floating point calculations, it's obvious to see which three motherboards have the X2 6000+, and we see the same scaled performance of the X2 4200+. What's most interesting here, however, is that the E6600 in the ECS G33T-M2 falls behind the X2 6000+; something I would never have guessed.

The motherboards in the second group have much more closely matched CPUs and RAM, so let's see how the performance compares on Intel chipsets and nVidia chipsets.

 

Group 2: Mainstream / High End - SiSoft Sandra - Processor Arithmetic

Intel chipsets

nVidia chipsets

 

When the CPU and RAM configurations are closely matched, so is the raw performance; even between different chipsets. In other words, stock performance is very boring, as it doesn't let the true power of a motherboard shine. If you have a Core2 CPU and aren't overclocking it, you need your head examined. THIS is where it starts getting interesting; when you see what performance you can unleash using the magical powers of the motherboard through the BIOS.

This leads to the conclusion that, in regards to performance, the motherboard choice is of little interest; system performance is determined by the CPU and RAM. So, for Group 1 we're going to move onto the value added features they bring to the table to give extra functionality, and for Group 2 we're going to look at the actual gaming performance. Each of these areas will give a better idea of how the motherboards will perform in real world use.

Head-to-Head:

Even though you're going for a budget motherboard, it doesn't mean that you have to go without the features of the higher end boards. You might not want or need a graphics card, but still want to connect to your digital TV. Maybe your home cinema system supports 7.1 digital sound and you'd like to make the most of movies without spending more money for a soundcard. How many things do you have with a USB connection? I used to think the number of LEDs in my room at night was ridiculous, but now it's the number of things that utilize USB. My printer, phone, PSP, camera, memory card reader, keyboard, mouse, MP3 player dock, external harddrive, Playstation controller converter, webcam, and flash drives are all USB. I don't want to have to buy a USB hub; my computer should have plenty as standard!

So below is a list of what I think a good budget motherboard should have.  Each feature will award the motherboard a number of points. These points will be added to give the motherboard an overall feature score.

 

Group 1: Budget / Entry Level

 

Ok, so now that we have compared the motherboards based on their abilities and functionality, we get a clearer picture of which is the better performer in the broader sense of the word.

 

Head-to-head:

Personally, I wanted to see which motherboard could overclock the same CPU and RAM the furthest, but this task would be near impossible, as literally THE same CPU and RAM would have to be used to avoid difference in overclockability of those components. Also, you would have to know each motherboard inside out to wring every last drop of speed out of it. Factors of cooling and ambient temperatures come into play and all of a sudden it all seems like some NASA project!

So I don't want to be a spaceman today; I want to drive around in a fast car, and then run around and shoot people and kick them in the face! Also, I want to play some games! lol.

F.E.A.R. and Need For Speed: Most Wanted are great examples of popular high action games that are both exhilirating and demanding on your computer. Let's see if the motherboard has any influence on the game performance.

 

F.E.A.R.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted

 

You might be wondering, "Why does the Abit IN9 suck so much?" Well, it doesn't suck; but it's running an X1900XT, which does suck compared to an 8800GTS. You were probably also wondering why the Abit AW9D has such a low score in F.E.A.R. Again, it comes down to the X1900XT; this time it's in Crossfire and it still sucks, yet it wins at NFS:MW by a whopping 1.4 frames per second. The only significant performance advantage is the DFI 680i LT in F.E.A.R., but it's next to last in NFS:MW.

All said and done, it's fairly level pegging with the graphics card differences taken into consideration, so it's really going to come down to which motherboard is the best deal price-wise.

Conclusion:

Group 1: Budget / Entry Level

The current price of the motherboards was found by taking the lowest price (not including rebates) when searching on Newegg, Pricewatch and Pricegrabber websites. This is combined with the "Feature Score" earlier in the review, and scaled to be within a range of 0 to 100, to give the Performance:Price ratio, or "bang for buck".










And the winners of Group 1 are...

Abit AN-M2HD
This motherboard manages to cram so many features in, it's hard to believe it all fits on a micro-ATX board! With VGA, DVI, HDMI and S/PDIF out of the box, you can connect this straight up to your flat screen TV, hook up the digital surround sound, and fit the motherboard in a sleek micro-ATX case to give you a fully featured entertainment/home cinema PC. Being able to manually set all the timings, speed and voltage values for the RAM means that you won't lose performance by the RAM being set to the SPD, which is almost always set looser than the specs for maximum compatibility.
ECS AMD690GM-M2
An equally impressive range of display connectivity: VGA, DVI, TV-out (standard defintion), support for a healthy 10 USB ports, but no S/PDIF output, and no control over the RAM timings.

Group 2: Mainstream / High End

Since the performance results are so close in this group, a look towards the overclocking results on the CPU and RAM are needed to determine the boards that stand out with the most value and the most performance. Here are the current prices for the motherboards in Group 2.

And the winners of Group 2 are...

Abit IP35 Pro
Abit does it again! Although not quite as overclockable as the ASUS P5K Deluxe, the Abit IP35 Pro comes within a whisker and for almost $40 less. Top-of-the-range performance for a very modest price.
DFI Lanparty UT NF680i LT SLI-T2R
This is the most expensive motherboard, probably mostly due to its scarcity, and you will almost certainly have trouble buying one new. This board deserves a mention though, as the range of voltage options in the BIOS gives you stability that you cannot get on any other 680i board, especially with Quad Core CPUs. So for SLI with a Core2 CPU, this is the king; continuing the legend of DFI Lanparty.

It's been an interesting year for motherboards, with each chipset having certain quirks, and lots of healthy competition at all price points. I'm personally looking forward to what 2008 has in store for us with new high-performance chipsets on the maturing 775 platform. No doubt the budget sector will continue to amaze me, but I wonder what else they can cram on the board!

Look out for the next OCC roundup coming soon...