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How to Choose a Motherboard
And Not Be Sorry Afterwards


Integrated audio

On-board audio is a standard now, you practically cannot find a motherboard without integrated audio. Thus, it can be evaluated and this rating will influence the overall "attractiveness index" of a motherboard. However, before trying to evaluate integrated audio, we should ruthlessly wipe up a number of myths about it:

  1. Myth One: "Integrated audio offers horrible sound quality". Unfortunately, this myth is sometimes inspired by motherboard manufacturers themselves, who often treat integrated audio not as a functional element of a motherboard but as a "cheap trifle that can be implemented just to make some sounds". But it doesn't mean that it cannot be implemented differently! The highest quality of integrated AC’97 audio is regularly demonstrated by motherboards equipped with AC’97 codecs from Analog Devices (see Photo 1). While AC’97 codecs from Realtek really just "produce sounds". However, this concerns only the AC’97 codecs of this company, its HDA codecs are much better. But in general, it should be tested of course. iXBT publishes integrated audio quality tests in tests and reviews of motherboards. It will be peachy, if you find your motherboard in the list of reviewed models. If you don't, try to find tests of motherboards with the same codec, it's better than nothing. Always remember: there really exists integrated audio with normal quality. Of course, it cannot reach the state-of-the-art external sound cards, but you understand the difference between "bad" and "normal, but not outstanding", don't you?
  2. Myth Two: "Honest" on-board audio chip is always better than an AC’97 or HDA codec, because an audio chip has a processor inside, and it does not borrow resources from the CPU for its operation". The funniest thing is that I heard this legend most often from owners of motherboards with an on-board C-Media CMI 8738 chip. For your information, gentlemen: this chip is not a DSP (digital signal processor). It's an HSP – Host-based Signal Processor. And all its audio effects are up to drivers. Thus, it's not that much better than an AC’97 codec (a tad better due to its own DMA controller) and no better than an HDA codec. Of course sometimes motherboards are equipped with sterling audio chips, but you should be well aware: "not a codec" and "sterling DSP" are not the same thing. That's why you should analyze each case individually.
  3. Myth Three: "My integrated audio even supports EAX, so it will be on a par with Sound Blaster in games!" I have to disappoint you: it's not a hardware support, it's again on the emulation level using drivers, and it's cut down very much. That is a game will detect a "real Sound Blaster", but you will not hear what you would on a sterling sound card – just a mixture of low quality sounds (many software 3D sound algorithms are still on the level of 1995 and operate with 22 kHz sound). Free cheese can be only found in mouse traps.

Photo 1. AC'97 codec Analog Devices AD1985.
One of the highest quality AC'97 codecs.

And now that we are through with myths, let's proceed to the analysis. The simplest case – this motherboard has been already reviewed in the iXBT lab: all motherboard reviews have included results of integrated audio quality tests for a long time already. If our web site does not have a review of the motherboard you want, you should at least try to find out what codec is used in the motherboard. That's not an easy thing to do, because you will hardly be able to figure out the tiny designation on motherboard photos published in Internet. But fortunately, some manufacturers include this information into motherboard descriptions or their manuals (you will have to download them...) on their web sites. So, visit the web site and open the page with motherboard specifications or download its manual, if worse comes to worst. Alternative options: search for the information in Internet forums or just ask a sales person over the phone. So: search, and you'll find.

After you found the codec, you can try to find (again on our web site – that's not an ad, I just don't know other test labs that analyze integrated audio properties) tests results for other motherboards with the same codec. If you found one – only a positive result is important for you: it means that this codec can offer good audio quality. If you found several motherboards, all of them offering satisfactory results – it means that the bad audio quality is the codec's fault, not the fault of the given motherboard layout. That seems to be all. Not much, but at least something...

And the last thing. As you can see, you'll have to make efforts. But your efforts will be directed to obtain maximum possible from integrated audio. In general, if we compare not the functionality (sound effects, 3D sound in games) but only the sound quality and the convenience of audio solutions for users, the situation looks like this:

  1. "Bad" integrated AC'97 audio is really horrible. You can notice it even on bad active speakers "for $20" or in headphones of the same class.
  2. "Good" integrated AC'97 audio (for example based on Analog Devices codec) is the first approximation to the quality of an external 2-3 year old sound card.
  3. Integrated HDA audio (good on-board implementation) is definitely better than AC'97: it can compete with the above mentioned old PCI cards. Certainly only in quality, not in 3D effects it still doesn't have DSP.
  4. External sound card at about $35 (for example, SoundBlaster Live! 24-bit) provides the sound quality, which is still unreachable both for AC'97 or HDA.

Thus, if you plan on using integrated audio, you should avoid Situation [1], and possibly buy a motherboard with a HDA codec instead of AC'97 (Situation [3]). Unfortunately, motherboards with HDA codecs are currently available only for a single platform: Intel Socket 775. AMD fans, who want to get high-quality integrated audio, may size up solutions based on VIA VT1616 codec or motherboards with sterling integrated audio chips (both motherboards are given as examples). Products based on NVIDIA nForce2 [Ultra 400] chipsets are also very good (as a rule) in terms of sound quality, but they support Socket A, which is currently outdated.

Additional controllers

As always, we'll start with the key points: the author does not know how to increase motherboard reliability by integrating additional chips. Of course except for duplicating some units, but we are not going to see it in desktops for a long time... That's why any additional chip, every "external" controller (relative to the chipset) potentially reduces motherboard reliability. Of course, R&D engineers could have done a miracle (or maybe the "heroic deed" is the word for it) and design such a filigree layout that the reliability wouldn't be jeopardized. Could have done... or maybe couldn't. That we don't wis. So, remember the main principle: "stay away from potential troubles" and draw a conclusion: if a given motherboard has on-board controllers, which you are hardly going to use, that's a potential disadvantage without potential advantages. Besides, I can remember only few cases when motherboards were equipped with really expensive controllers. Most of them refer to servers and workstations. That's why even if you think that "maybe in half a year I will need Gigabit Ethernet" (FireWire, SATA RAID, etc – add anything to taste), you shouldn't buy anything integrated, if you don't need it today or tomorrow. You'll buy it later as an expansion card. As a rule, expansion cards, offering similar functionality as integrated controllers, cost less than $30-40. I don't think this sum of money will be such a problem half a year after you bought the main components. Besides, if you are going to upgrade your system, external controllers have a nice peculiarity: you can use them on a new motherboard, unlike integrated ones.

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


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