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Mid-End Motherboard Roundup

Socket AM2+ motherboard market analysis.

December 31, 2008



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A year ago we started a series of articles about the motherboards market. The first article was devoted to the selection of Mid-End products. A year has passed, and it's apparently high time to draw new conclusions. We'd like to remind you of the "game rules". Unlike our reviews of motherboards selected for their original solutions, the primary criterion for picking motherboards here is availability in our local retail stores. In our opinion, it will be interesting to see which motherboards have become really popular and analyze the reasons for that.

A year ago, when Socket AM2+ just rolled out, there were problems because of delayed Phenom shipments, but now the market apparently accepted this platform, and it's become quite popular.

It's too early to write off Athlons, of course. They even prevail in inexpensive computers (fortunately, they can be installed in new motherboards for Socket AM2+). But it must be noted that the recent price drop lowered cheaper quad-core Phenoms (9550) below $150, and triple-core models sank even below $100. It makes Phenoms a more practical choice for a generic Mid-End computer (especially as Intel offers only dual-core processors in this price range). It's takes AMD much effort to stand against Intel's PR machine, of course, and there are not many CPU reviews which would emulate typical user activities instead of just publishing points or seconds. But a lot of users have probably learned from their own experience that extra cores indeed affect ergonomics, "making room" for background processes and executing them efficiently (unnoticeable to users). Upgrade to such processors is not as noticeable as, for example, a new graphics card, which allows to play modern games. But from the practical point of view, it only means that everything depends on a price. If extra comfort is not very expensive, much more people can afford it.

However, meticulous users have already adopted an absolutely correct idea -- to compare not only CPU prices, but also platform costs (including motherboards and memory). And Socket AM2+ has many trump cards here, primarily owing to inexpensive and functional chipsets from AMD and NVIDIA. Let's start from the chipsets.

Chipsets

NVIDIA GeForce 8200, 8300, nForce 720a, 730a

GeForce 8200 is popular mostly in the segment of inexpensive poorly-rigged microATX motherboards (it has to do with the single-bridge layout on one hand, and lower performance of the integrated graphics core versus AMD 780G). However, some manufacturers decided that full-size motherboards with this chipset would still find their users, among people who want to save on a motherboard and then rig their computers up to maximum with expansion cards (microATX won't do here).

GeForce 8300 chipset (more attractive from the technical point of view) has been delayed, so there are only a few motherboards with this chipset. However, this chipset is supported by the biggest manufacturer (ASUS), so there have appeared several full-size modifications. And the nForce 720a / 730a chipsets with similar characteristics did not get their support.

AMD 780V, 780G

The AMD 780V chipset for office computers is used almost exclusively in microATX boards, and most such products are shipped to OEM integrators, so you can rarely see this chipset in retail stores.

What concerns AMD 780G, motherboards with this chipset are deservedly popular. You can certainly find inexpensive compact motherboards with this chipset as well. But even micro-ATX models may be rigged up luxuriously, not just richly. Some of these models, for example Gigabyte MA78GPM-DS2H, have become very popular, even though they are rather expensive for a micro-ATX product. It must be noted that all motherboards with this chipset from Gigabyte are original products. For example, Gigabyte MA78GM-S2H, which is formally not a Mid-End product, also looks very interesting.

Full-size motherboards with this chipset are certainly well-spread as well. These motherboards cannot boast of rich configurations, they are inexpensive, and they are designed for people who want to assemble computers to their liking.

AMD 770, AMD 790X

AMD 770 does not contain an integrated graphics core. It's designed for inexpensive full-size motherboards. As it was released almost a year ago, it had enough time to take deep roots in the market. And with the rollout of SB700, manufacturers upgraded their models to this new combination. However, many users still think that four SATA ports are more than enough, so some motherboards with the old SB600 are still popular.

Interestingly, both AMD 780G and AMD 770 can be used in motherboards with two graphics ports and CrossFire support. It's an exception, of course, because these chipsets formally don't support more than one graphics port. Besides, the total number of PCI-Express lanes is too low. However, if we speak of pairing HD 3870 or 4830 cards (not top products), even four PCI-Express lanes in the slave port are quite sufficient for two cards. And two ports with eight lanes each are a classic combination, which is sufficient for any pair of single-GPU cards. It's only natural that some people want to assemble Mid-End computers with two graphics ports. But unlike assemblers of expensive computers for games, they rarely install both graphics cards at once, the second port is considered as a reserve for the future. In this case users wouldn't like to pay too much for this feature (or sacrifice other characteristics).

Apart from the above mentioned motherboards, there exist inexpensive 790X-based models with a couple of graphics ports (with official CrossFire support). To be more exact, the local market offers only two (MSI K9A2 CF-F and Gigabyte MA790X-DS4, the latter failed to comply with our today's price range, but it still makes sense to pay attention to this model). The choice of motherboards with CrossFire support will grow in the nearest future owing to 790GX-based products. The most inexpensive motherboards have already come close to our price margin. It's important, because interest to CrossFire has grown significantly now owing to the advantage of modern Radeon HD solutions over NVIDIA cards, especially in the price range below $250 (the most popular graphics cards for Mid-End gaming computers cost below $150-200).

Even though motherboards with NVIDIA nForce 750a SLI had a head start and there are much more offers, they are still far from the Mid-End price range (notwithstanding that this chipset has weaker characteristics than 790GX). So SLI support won't be cheap either, and this situation agrees with the current state of affairs in the market of graphics cards.

Another note -- unlike the last-year's review, this article includes only motherboards with chipsets from AMD and NVIDIA. You won't find a motherboard with the chipset from VIA or SiS for Socket AM2+, even if you look hard. However, VIA already announced its intentions to manufacture chipsets only for its own processors. The company redirects its resources to the market of subnotebooks. Besides, motherboards with SiS chipsets have never been widely spread even in their palmy days.


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