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How to Choose a Motherboard
And Not Be Sorry Afterwards


"I want a fast motherboard!"

What concerns me, I don't. I need a stable motherboard. Join me, gentlemen! Join the club of those who like to get from Point A to Point B instead of reckless driving! You will get much more than those 5-6% gain – the usual difference between motherboards for the same CPU type (besides, those 5-6% are usually demonstrated in low-level synthetic tests, while in most real applications the difference will usually not exceed 1-2%). There are a lot of other methods to raise performance, which are much more effective and take much less efforts. If you spend the same time on making money, which John Dow the neighbour wastes on fine tuning memory timings and other BIOS settings, John Dow will just be blue from envy. Because instead of fine tuning the system, you'll just buy a more powerful processor or add another memory module – John's fine tuning will be nothing compared to your system performance. Just 3% for a month of heroic efforts, glitches, freezes, and multiple stability tests. And you got 10% gain all at once. And you will most likely spend less of your personal time to achieve this result!

But this is the case if there is really a point in changing something. Most likely there is even no point. Megahertz, ratings, gigabytes, and other paraphernalia – it's a disease, you will get over it anyway, as I did. Listen to the advice of a recovered man: you had better not to be ill at all. After you recover, the heap of hardware will evoke nothing but sadness and the silent question "Why on earth have I bought all these?!" So, learn the following as a mantra: the only criterion of performance is your own feeling. The other criteria are used to cajole money out of users instead of satisfying their demands.

Of course, there are "clinical cases", when the performance of a certain motherboard model differs considerably from similar motherboards from other manufacturers. But firstly, this difference is most often demonstrated in a couple of programs (popular software). And secondly, no one tells you to ignore these tests completely. Just don't overestimate this factor. Look at the diagrams in a roundup with pursy eyes. Ignore the columns that differ much from the others (in a bad sense). That's all, elimination is over. The other motherboards can be considered to have equal performance. You won't feel the difference in their performance in real applications anyway – a man is much less sensible than a benchmark. If there are no reviews of this model so far – we can assume that everything is all right with its performance. I prefer to be on the safe side, but in this case the risks are trifling. Just to make sure, have a look at the comparative tests of motherboards on the same chipset and on different ones – such tests are sure to appear in 2-3 months after the motherboards become available on sale (remember about the "retention period"!). If the chipset is held up to a "blunt and hopeless drag", it's a bad sign. If you see the notorious 5-6% of difference, don't pay any attention.

Graphics: integrated or discrete?

That's a simple and complex issue (as it often happens...) I would put it like this: I can recommend a motherboard with integrated video as an "all-time" solution only to those who have a clear idea of this solution and agree to it anyway. All the rest had better buy motherboards that allow an "external" video card. There are compromise solutions – motherboards with integrated video that nevertheless allow an external video card. Actually, this solution is optimal for all users. There is one tiny "but": as a rule, it is more expensive than motherboards without integrated video as well as motherboards with integrated video, which do not allow external video cards. That's why I'll try to explain what you cannot expect from integrated video. At least from those solutions, which are currently implemented in chipsets from the largest manufacturers.

  1. You cannot expect high performance in the first place. Actually, if you like to play 3D games, forget about integrated video once and for all. It's all very fine that 6-year old Quake II runs fast on the modern i915G chipset, but I just cannot imagine a gamer who will agree to content himself with 2-3 year old games, let alone 6-year old ones.
  2. Integrated video may have problems with large resolutions. And though the work is in progress, I still cannot recommend it to all users, who are going to work in resolutions higher than 1024x768, especially on CRT monitors. The chances are high that you will be disappointed with the quality. Yes, there are chipsets offering a much higher 2D quality than their competitors. But not that higher to make me recommend them for large resolutions.

On the other hand, a motherboard with integrated video, which also allows to install an external video card, is a reasonable compromise between the desire to get a functional computer "already tomorrow" and the lack of money for a video card that you want to install in your computer. It's sort of a perverted form of a credit purchase :) – you just overpay a little for a "computer already tomorrow" and unhurriedly save money for a video card with a functional computer at hand. By the way: if you want a powerful and expensive video card (and you don't have enough money), it's a much cleverer move than buying a motherboard without integrated video and with a weak cheap video card: even the weakest and the cheapest one will cost you higher than the price difference between a motherboard with integrated video and without it.

Those, who are interested in integrated video performance despite the above said (though I categorically refuse to apply the word "performance" to it!), can take my simple piece of advice: for the Intel platform take the new Intel series (i915) or ATI chipsets (desirably two-channel), for the AMD platform – also ATI or NVIDIA. Don't consider VIA and SiS at all. Though you won't feel the difference between motherboards from these four manufacturers, if you don't play games.

Vladimir Rybnikov (puree@ixbt.com)
February 1, 2004


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