The Melee In Motherboards


An inside look at the battle for supremacy from tom's hardware


The bedrock of every PC is the motherboard. But picking a motherboard that best fits the needs of your business and the needs of your customers is not an easy task, especially when you consider the abundance of choices. To help systems builders make more informed choices, we looked at the current high-end of platforms from both Intel and AMD.

When choosing a motherboard, we suggest maintaining your focus on two key aspects: which processor to use, and what kind of memory to specify. Those choices determine your target price/performance, and neither should be made without serious investigation. To that end, we have completed two tests that should make your job easier. The first is a review of boards that use Intel's 850E chipset. The second is a review of motherboards that use AMD's VIA KT333 chipset.

Why those two? Well, at the end of the day, the performance desktop is fueled by two competitors: AMD and Intel. With AMD not expected to release its next- generation processor, the K8, until late in the year or even early next, the AMD vs. Intel rivalry has little sparkle at the moment. Our comparison of the latest and best from AMD, the Athlon XP 2200 , using the new Thoroughbred core to give increased clock frequency, shows that it lags behind Intel's top-of-the-line Pentium 4/2533. Of the 32 benchmark tests we ran, the Athlon was only able to beat the P4 in two.

The Athlon, quite frankly, is showing its age and is now reaching the limits of its architecture. Had the K8 been ready this summer, AMD may have had some cause for celebration and competition. More important, we have to consider the thermal protection of the new processors: With the launch of the Athlon XP with the Thoroughbred core, AMD has given new guidelines to motherboard makers. As of June 10, all motherboards were supposed to integrate thermal-protection circuitry, which reacts to temperature monitoring via a thermal diode to switch off the power supply immediately. Otherwise, AMD will not take responsibility for a damaged CPU.

In contrast to AMD, Intel seems to be moving forward,and fast. Together with 533-MHz RDRAM, the P4 gains accordingly in performance through a frontside bus (FSB) clock that has been increased from 100 MHz to 133 MHz.

A Lesson In Darwinism

Before we get right to it, first a word on which boards we chose to review. At Tom's Hardware, we end up testing hundreds of motherboard SKUs every year. Still, it's the top-10 market leaders that matter to most systems builders. No arguing here that there aren't other boards worth taking a look at; there are, and we do. But for this package, we look at market leaders. Why? Their volumes compel us to do so. For example, Asus, ECS, MSI and Gigabyte are the top four motherboard vendors in the world, accounting for approximately 50 percent of all motherboards produced. Of the next six suppliers,including Abit, Epox, DFI, BioStar, Shuttle and Soyo,all have operations in the United States. That includes local support and a significant emphasis on the reseller channel.

While there may not have been much emphasis on brand-name recognition among motherboard vendors in the past, times have changed. Given the strength of the white-box PC vendor, it's worth considering the background of the company with which you partner. The top four vendors, for example, offer a range of products beyond motherboards. Some even furnish bare-bones systems to increase their positioning with the channel. There are also highly specialized vendors, including DFI and Chaintech, that have a great deal of emphasis on the retail market. IWill, for example, specializes in the high-end desktop/workstation and server segment. You also will find that Taiwanese vendors try to cover as many conceivable configurations as possible. Thus, the product menu from each company is a minefield.

In the case of our two reviews here, we are sticking with the tried and true. There are fewer companies with a vested interest or capability in getting support for the 850E up and running quickly, so there are fewer companies reviewed here. On the other hand, all the usual suspects have jumped on the KT333 bandwagon, which means you have a score of companies from which to choose. This is partly due to AMD's traditional strength in the channel, which can be quickly targeted by the motherboard vendors. (It's also due to the lack of a legal blockade on VIA from Intel, though the politics of chipsets isn't something we get into here.) One other reason why there are fewer Intel designs worth testing: Demands made by Intel tend to be more stringent and conservative than those of other vendors. As a result, Taiwanese board vendors typically react with greater caution to Intel due to the additional pressure put on the design and electronics of the motherboard as CPUs go into higher frequency realms.

Challengers In 850E Boards

In our review, we tested boards from Gigabyte, IWill, Intel and BioStar. We also looked at two from Asus.

We wanted to avoid the automatic resource-management feature integrated in Windows XP, so, as in the past, we opted to use Windows 2000 to test this group of chipsets. The only reason for choosing Windows 2000 instead of Windows XP is that the newer version of Windows optimizes how background applications run. This new feature would have prevented us from obtaining accurate benchmarking results.

For the 850E-based boards, we looked at DirectX 8 performance using 3DMark 2001 from MadOnion (www.madonion.com). We also used the latest offering from SPEC (www.spec.org), Viewperf 7.0, to look at high-end OpenGL performance. For a synthetic application test, we used SiSoft (www.sisoftware.demon.co.uk/sandra/) and another, MadOnion benchmark, PCMark 2002.

In looking at the high end of the P4 desktop market, we recommend the higher-frequency P4 SKUs and Rambus memory. It's quite astonishing what the rather outmoded Intel 850 chipset is able to deliver on performance when used together with Rambus memory. Basically, Intel has not made significant changes to the 850E when compared with its predecessor, the 850. The only adjustments that were made were done to tailor it for the new Northwood core of the Pentium 4. In general, we were able to determine that, with help from 533-MHz RDRAM (PC1066), the motherboards in our tests were able to squeeze out every last drop of performance from the Pentium 4. Here, there are no restrictions imposed by bandwidth, as opposed to double data rate (DDR) SDRAM. In the test, however, the motherboards revealed their differences: Asus, spoiled by its success in the past, is no longer able to take top position, even though the Taiwanese manufacturer integrates support for 32-bit Rambus technology. That allows the Asus board to run using a single module, while the other boards only work with pairs of 16-bit modules.

The winner of the test was Gigabyte. Its motherboard is rich in features and high on performance; it takes first place in most of the tests. The manufacturer prices the board at $225 for the complete package, which is not unreasonable when you consider all the features that it offers. By contrast, the Asus board is offered at about the same price, while offering a meager number of features and marginally lower performance.

The question that remains at the conclusion of the test is: What will happen to Rambus? After the events of the recent days,the FTC has filed an administrative complaint against Rambus relating to Rambus' 1992 to 1995 participation in an industry-standard setting committee known as the Joint Electron Device Engineering Council,the future of RDRAM is more than uncertain. In light of the current situation, Intel will not further develop the 850E chipset. Still, the actual Rambus technology leaves no room for complaint: RDRAM offers a large bandwidth of up to 4.2 GBps and offers the best performance, particularly when used together with the Intel Pentium 4. Intel's only chance to keep up with the performance level of PC1066 memory (533 MHz) is a new memory interface (chipset). Internal documents from Intel reveal that at the beginning of next year, the successor to the P4 will be launched. Codenamed "Prescott," it will integrate a dual-channel DDR interface with DDR333.

You should keep in mind that the Intel Pentium 4 has a maximum bandwidth of 4.2 GBps. In the near future, this will reach well beyond the 3-GHz limit. Only Rambus memory in the form of PC4200 (533 MHz) is capable of taking full advantage of this bandwidth. By using DDR SDRAM, such as DDR266 or DDR333, the bandwidth remains restricted to 2.1 GBps and 2.7 GBps, respectively.

VIA KT333: Making the Right Choice For Athlon

While conventional wisdom, if not market dynamics, dictates that beyond 3 GHz Intel needs Rambus, AMD still blazes the trail with DDR333. We tested 18 motherboards with the VIA KT333 chipset, including boards from Abit, Acorp, AOpen, Asus, Biostar, Chaintech, Enmic, Epox, FIC, Gigabyte, Jetway, Lucky Star, MSI, QDI, Shuttle, Soltek and Soyo. Unencumbered by legal woes, VIA brings its power to bear in the AMD market.

Due to the automatic resource management integrated in Windows XP, we used Windows 2000, as we did with the 850E tests. Furthermore, it is worth noting that at the time of these tests, AMD had not required thermal protection, so we didn't require it. AMD was expected to make thermal protection a requirement by June 10. One final thought: It is important to consider the features offered with every motherboard because, often, with little differentiation in performance, it all comes down to the package offered.

Out of a total of 18 test candidates, the Gigabyte GA-7VRXP made the best impression. In all of the benchmark disciplines, the motherboard with the KT333 chipset ranks among the top performers. The only other boards to offer stiff competition were the Epox EP-8K3A++and the Enmic 8TTX2 , both of which managed to achieve slightly better results in some of the tests. Nevertheless, the Gigabyte's rich features and special over-clocking functions are convincing. Networking, sound, a RAID controller and a USB 2.0 chip are included in the list of features.

The Gigabyte board does not yet have any protection against thermal death. The manufacturer continues to leave out unnecessary OEM interfaces such as advanced communications riser, audio/modem riser and communication and networking riser, which are of no use to end users anyway. The wealth of materials and accessories included in the package complete our positive impression of this board, and so the Gigabyte GA-7VRXP wins the Tom's Hardware Guide Award for 2002.

We were somewhat disappointed by the Asus A7V333, because the manufacturer still delivers the board with an FSB that has been factory over-clocked to 135 MHz. There's essentially nothing to speak against this strategy, but a test comparison must be made based on identical conditions. Therefore, Asus gave us a modified BIOS, which uses a specification clock of 133.33 MHz. All other candidates use the standard clock speed. Apart from the FSB trick, the A7V333 is certainly a solid board with good performance and numerous features.

From a global viewpoint, we can conclude the following for the KT333 chipset: It's not worth it to switch directly from KT266A to KT333. Currently, the DDR333 modules available on the market are frequently meant for CL2.5 mode, so there's no performance gain compared with a KT266A system with DDR266 and CL2. It makes sense to switch to the VIA Apollo KT333 only if you use an appropriate motherboard (e.g., one from Epox, Enmic or Gigabyte) along with fast DDR333 memory (CL2). Some of the KT266A already have additional features such as USB 2.0, RAID and FireWire. The only thing remaining is the Ultra DMA/133 function, which is now used only by Maxtor hard drives. n

Omid Rahmat is editor and general manager for U.S. operations at Tom's Hardware. He can be reached at omid@tomshardware.com.