As of November 2007
With this article we start a series devoted to analyzing the motherboard market. In our tests we are used to rating certain technical features of motherboards and evaluating their appropriateness for the user group targeted by the board's manufacturer itself. However, the market distinguishes its own bestsellers that are sometimes quite different from what the tests and specifications alone may suggest. In our opinion, it is quite interesting to find out, which boards have actually become popular. To discuss the reasons and, perhaps, discover certain trends. As always (but especially in this case) we are waiting for comments and suggestions from you, dear readers.
As we all know, to uncover the full potential of the newest quad-core AMD Phenom X4 and FX processors one should install these into Socket AM2+ boards based on AMD 790FX, 790X and 770 chipsets. However, it is also known that the new processors can be installed into Socket AM2 boards as well (for more information about Socket AM2+ features and compatibility please see the review of Biostar TF560). In brief, we may say that the general distinguishing feature of Socket AM2+ is its support for HyperTransport 3.0 bus and additional energy-saving technologies. Moreover, Socket AM3 processors, which on top of the aforementioned capabilities support DDR3, are also compatible with the current CPU socket. Actually, of all possible combinations only installing Socket AM2 and AM2+ processors onto boards with the future Socket AM3 is not supported. The simple reason is that they cannot operate with DDR3 memory.
In any case, for those willing to build (or buy) a top performance system based on a new processor, up to 4 graphics cards in the Quad CrossFire mode, DDR2-1066, and other high-end features, a corresponding enthusiast board with the highest functionality possible would be a natural choice. However, users with less extreme demands will be able to install 4-core CPU without the mandatory expenses related to replacing the motherboard. They will actually be able to get the full expected increase in performance of their applications.
The same is especially true for the middle-end segment of the market. Dual- and triple-core Phenoms, which are expected to be released in the beginning of 2008, even theoretically can not loose anything due to the lack of HyperTransport 3.0 support and other Socket AM2+ special features. Therefore, the choice of board for such a processor will be determined primarily by cost and functionality of a specific model. Naturally, as the market becomes saturated by Socket AM2+ boards, moreover, by boards that have certain advantages due to newer chipsets, the users will turn to those newer boards. Despite that, a couple of successful Socket AM2 models may stay on the market in such circumstances. It is even more likely, since the current Athlon 64 X2 are not going to be rushed off the shelves. Considering that they have strong competitive capacity in comparison to equal in price Intel processors, they will complement the Phenom series "from below" for quite a while.
For comparing it is actually recommended by AMD to take overall configuration cost into consideration, or at least the cost of the CPU-motherboard pair. Clearly, the idea originates from AMD (in contrast to Intel, for example), because for quite some time now AMD boards of equal functionality have had lower prices in all market segments. In some cases (comparing boards with integrated graphics, for example) the disproportion is pronounced. The approach itself, though, looks reasonable. Any CPU, even the greatest one, ends up installed into a specific computer. While for the most part the same components can be chosen in any case, motherboard has to fit the specific platform.
However, let us not jump to universal generalizations that are prone to exceptions (we must leave some subjects for the future analytical articles too). Instead, we shall have a look at the situation in a quite specific segment of the market, which according to statistics is popular among our readers. This segment includes inexpensive boards ($70-100) with rather broad capabilities for expansion. They offer reasonable overclocking support (enough to be used on a CPU with good overclocking potential, but without resorting to extreme methods like raising voltage above the safe limits or non-standard cooling). In addition, these boards provide decent functionality of their own, thanks to the usage of modern chipsets (and, to a lesser degree, external controllers). In other words, let us consider what is currently relevant as a foundation for an "average" individually built computer.
The middle-end configuration usually presumes a cheap one yet a discrete graphics card. In addition, there are boards being manufactured based on chipsets with integrated graphics, which can be of interest specifically for such systems. Full-size ATX-boards based on high-end integrated chipset models (or at least with rich-functionality southbridges) are no longer exotic, despite being rare. One example is Gigabyte M55plus-S3G, which had GeForce 6100 + nForce 430 chipset in its first version. In the second version a more functional northbridge Quadro NVS 210S (analog of GeForce 6150LE) was used, while the third one was equipped with GeForce 6150 itself.
Consumers have clearly liked the idea. That is why Gigabyte has added two more models that were basically identical to the first version of M55plus-S3G. These are Gigabyte M61P-S3 and Gigabyte M52S-S3P. The latter model does not have a FireWire controller and was fitted with a discrete nForce 520 chipset in its second version.
The release of AMD 690G chipset has added two more models to the collection of such boards. Again, Gigabyte has led the way with MA69G-S3. In addition, MSI had a debut with K9AG Neo2-Digital. The MSI K9AG Neo2 version, which came without HDMI-output (it only offers DVI-D), perhaps, is a better choice for those, who want to build a computer with a discrete graphics card. However, it is almost impossible to find in retail.
Let us move on to the chipsets that the manufacturer's themselves have geared towards inexpensive-board consumers, who want to build a computer on their own and have maximum freedom in choosing system components. With a small exception, such boards have full-size ATX form-factor (or at least fit it in terms of length).
Corresponding models can be found among products of almost all manufacturers. They are quite similar to one another, and from the reviewer's standpoint are rather boring test subjects. Usually they present no interesting brand features and no original technological solutions. However, the highest number of PCI slots can be found exactly on such models, which often becomes an important factor while choosing a board. As one such example we can look at Biostar TForce550 based on nForce 550 (a more frequently found, yet almost identical in functionality version, called NF550 AM2, is available in retail). Another example is ASUS M2V based on K8T890. A VIA chipset loses in regards to the SATA controller functionality. Nevertheless, as a representative of the older models produced in the times when other interfaces were popular, it has 2 PATA channels. This attribute can become a decisive argument in its favor for the owners of several "old-fashioned" optical and hard drives. While one can still find models with two PATA channels among the expensive boards (the second one implemented with the help of an extra controller), the modern cheap ones do not offer such an option to their users.
Besides the fans of PCI and PATA components, all those who want to maximize their savings on an ATX form-factor motherboard can also find a suitable option among the boards based on these chipsets. Most of such boards are based on K8T890, nForce 520 LE and nForce 520 chipsets. For example, Biostar NF520-A2. Their prices indeed are falling under 60 dollars, which is a record, in some sense. Meanwhile, the aforementioned board, for example, even provides decent CPU overclocking capabilities. A prerequisite is using good-quality memory, because the board is "picky" (in particular, it ignores the timings set by the user in BIOS), which can lead to more harsh memory operational conditions.
Nevertheless, if the price factor is significant for you, it makes sense to first determine whether it is necessary to buy a full-size ATX board. It is not impossible (and is even more than likely) that among the microATX boards based on chipsets with integrated graphics you will find more functionality (in terms of overclocking as well) than among the full-size boards for the same price. This last statement in particular can be illustrated by our roundup of boards based on AMD 690G chipset.
The most expensive and well-equipped chipset of the ones that don't offer support of two graphics ports is nForce 570 Ultra. The manufacturers do not think that the current situation is stimulating demand for relatively expensive boards with a single graphics port. The general tendency is, indeed, the opposite. Still there is a certain fraction of conservatives (conventionally speaking), who are convinced that they will not need a second graphics card, yet are demanding enough to approve of any additional functionality that distinguishes nForce 570 Ultra from the lower-class chipsets. As an example, let us consider ASUS M2N-E and MSI K9N Platinum that almost do not overlap in "ideology". The first board has a minimal set of extra options (on top of the functionality provided by the chipset) and a peculiar cooling system. The second one offers capabilities of the high-end boards, but the chipset is cooled by a simple heatsink. The user has freedom to choose what is more important in his particular case. However, MSI, having realized that its offer is too radical, has released K9N Ultra-2F with a less rich functionality, but with a more attractive price.
Speaking of "average" configuration that balances cost and performance it hardly makes sense to consider SLI and CrossFire systems. It has been long proven that such systems are good for setting records (or for providing overall performance unreachable even for a board with a most powerful GPU) when expensive graphics card models are used. Besides, it is useless to combine low-end cards, it is simpler and more effective to install a single powerful one. However, if you are unwilling to buy a pair of high-end graphics cards, does it mean that you should consciously avoid motherboards with two graphics ports? The answer is obvious. Nobody is going to try hard to find a card without FireWire or an 8-channel audio codec, just because he knows that they will most likely be of no use. It is logical to make decisions by focusing on the necessary functionality and not by considering what is not going to be needed.
Apparently, there are quite of few users that follow the same logic. That is why many liberally-priced boards with two graphics ports can be found in every manufacturer's series of products. Of course, two PCI Express x16 ports and the ballast of actually rarely-used PCIEx1 force the PCI slots off such boards. As a result, not only 4 but even 3 PCI slots remain a characteristic of very few boards like ASRock ALiveXFire-eSATA2. But, again, striving to get a high number of PCI slots is not an end in itself. Many users reasonably consider the chances of occupying more than 2 PCI slots lower than some day installing a second graphics card. On one hand, this results from the tendency of producing a significant number of peripherals, formerly popular as built-in components (modems, TV-tuners), in the form of external devices (or PCI Express expansion cards). On the other hand, the idea of using a second graphics card has been floating around for a while, if not for the purposes of 3D-rendering in tandem with the first one, then for handling game physics or even cracking passwords (and other computationally-intensive activities). Sooner or later it is going to be implemented. Most likely, physical model rendering support in games will seem quite ordinary when it comes. The time of general excitement about the "game physics" subject is gone, now the public can only be interested by a demonstration of concrete results.
The choice of platform between one with a CrossFire or with SLI support is naturally tied to the choice of an AMD or NVIDIA graphics card correspondingly. However, we know of no precedents when a board based o AMD 480X chipset failed to support (in any way "inefficiently utilized") a single graphics card based on a NVIDIA graphics processor or vice versa (board based on NVIDIA chipset - a card based on an AMD processor). That is why if you are certain that you are not going to install a second equivalent graphics card in addition to the one already present (especially if such an ability is not supported by the graphics card) then it would be logical to just compare the functionality of equal-price cards without paying attention to the "origin" of the chipset. However, there isn't an abundance of boards based on AMD 480X on the market, while the consumers don't really know about them and disregard when making their choice. Clearly, AMD wasn't really interested in promoting this old-timer chipset. Not only is it an ATI's legacy, but has also been designed "a long time ago" by computer standards. Therefore, its shipments are gradually being reduced in order to make way for a new series of chipsets getting ready to be released. Nevertheless, is somewhat easier to find an attractive board based on AMD 480X, in contrast to nForce 500 SLI (which is a re-branded member of nForce 4 series). In the latter case a rather hot chipset is usually cooled by a rather irritatingly noisy fan. It was a subject of negative reviews even in the times when nForce 4 had a lot fewer competitors. An interesting exception is ASUS M2N-E SLI based on nForce 500 SLI. It has passive cooling, though without the heat pipes, like the similarly named model based on nForce 570 Ultra (that model is much different, though).
Formally NVIDIA has released inexpensive versions of chipsets with SLI support. They are manufactured according to the modern technological process, nForce 560 SLI and 570 LT SLI to be exact. However, no boards based on such chipsets have been shipped for retail yet. Nevertheless, the decrease in prices of the numerous boards based on nForce 570 SLI chipset has led to a drop in the prices for the cheapest models to the quite liberal 80 dollars and below. Unfortunately, the other characteristics of such boards can hardly draw attention in the context of the platform for a middle-end configuration with a single graphics card that we are considering. On the contrary, they are suited for those who want to install two graphics cards, but are willing to sacrifice the other capabilities of the board in order to save money.
Which boards are most popular in the market segment being considered? It is easy to get a formal answer by querying any of the price search engines and look at the number of offers for each of the aforementioned chipsets. For the final chart we have reduced the rather long resulting list to the boards that by the compound characteristics best fit the requirements of those consumers, who wish to build a middle-end system described above.
If we look at just the main characteristics it will be easy to notice that the selected motherboards, despite being based on various chipsets, are more alike than they are different. Except for two boards the manufacturers have found a way to equip all products with 3 or 4 PCI slots. In all cases support for at least 4 SATA or 2 PATA devices is provided. All of the chipsets on the list can support 10 USB ports, while the boards are designed for exactly such a number of connectors. 4-6 are as usual located on the rear panel, and there are headers for the remaining ones that the users can wire to expansion brackets on the rear panel or connect to the front panel ports on their own.
On the other hand, FireWire support is not considered relevant by the manufacturers. Such ports are easier to find on the boards with integrated graphics, including boards of microATX form-factor. It is probably, a consequence of such boards' orientation towards media centers. Many users wish to connect such systems to digital video cameras, which are the primary consumers of such ports. Vice-versa, FireWire can be found in the category of expensive rich-functionality boards, where it is common to just include all possible interfaces that a user may need.
In contrast, Gigabit Ethernet network controller is almost always used on such boards. For the boards based on NVIDIA chipsets in most cases the abilities of chipsets (a built-in MAC-adapter) are exploited zealously. From a user's point of view the boards with PCI Express controllers are not any worse. However, those few cases where a gigabit controller has to make do with a PCI bus will undoubtedly be criticized by the users, who have gigabit network equipment and work with applications that generate a lot of traffic.
We intentionally pay little attention to the integrated audio codecs. Sound cards are installed into DYI middle-end systems just about as often as into expensive systems. In contrast to the high-end PCs, the card does not necessarily have to be one of the latest Creative products and the likes. It could be one bought some time ago and that has outlasted several computers. Let us just say that an 8-channel Realtek codec is a typical outfit. A positive distinctive feature of such boards is that not everyone who wants to connect their equipment to a digital interface will have to buy and extra bracket for setting up S/PDIF ports. There are also boards with coaxial and even optical ports available on the rear panel.
Speaking of components, we must add that all of the motherboards in this category do not offer a lot. Apart from the ability to connect a couple of disks, all of the user's demands are treated as excessive. You will have to take care of them on your own after the purchase.
Judging from the forecasts provided by CPU manufacturers, no significant changes are expected in the middle-end segment in the near future. In is quite natural that motherboards for the Socket AM2+ platform will add to the variety. They will begin displacing boards based on nForce 590 SLI and AMD 580X chipsets out of the expensive board segment. However, considering the evolutionary nature of changes planned as part of the introduction of Socket AM2+, as well as persistent widespread compatibility of processors and motherboards, successful popular inexpensive boards will remain in high demand still for quite some time. Some of them may even break market longevity records. Should we expect a decrease of prices for boards based on Socket AM2? It is possible to some degree, but hardly a significant and an abrupt one. Unlike the prices for processors, motherboard prices depend on a much higher number of competing companies and, therefore, go down gradually instead of all at once. Besides, there are no objective reasons for such a sharp decrease in this case (in contrast, for example, to the case of processors with incompatible sockets and other characteristics that require a change of the motherboard).
Dmitriy Laptev (firstname.lastname@example.org)
November 28, 2007
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