Enter the motherboard

The motherboard. The most complex component of the PC, the motherboard is the engine that sets the limits of how powerful, expandable and reliable any system is, or could be.

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By  Will Milner Published  October 4, 2000

The motherboard. The most complex component of the PC, the motherboard is the engine that sets the limits of how powerful, expandable and reliable any system is, or could be.

In a nutshell, the motherboard is the most important component you are going to buy. If you choose wrongly, it will not matter how good the graphics, sound, processor or peripheral devices you plug into it are - the PC will simply fail to deliver. And the problem is that the already complex process of choosing a motherboard design has now become so confused that even industry experts are being stretched.

The reason? First, Intel and AMD processor wars have created two standards for the motherboard. Choose Intel and you have one set of choices, choose AMD and you have another. Secondly, the development of RAMBUS, supposedly the replacement for all SDRAM boards, has proved to be problematic.

We have also not added to the complexity by introducing the different issues you face if you require a motherboard for a workstation or server.

To get the facts we went to the Middle East's foremost expert on motherboard technology. Because of the sensitivity of his position, we have honored his request for anonymity and extend our thanks for his assistance in what follows.

The first and most apparently simple fact is that if you want to use an Intel processor, you must choose an Intel board. But nothing is simple in this world. The reality is that if you want to use an Intel processor you have to choose between two types of "chipset", the hardware on the motherboard that decides how the parts of the motherboard will work together and what the motherboard will be able to do.

This means that the first choice is between an Intel board, manufactured by a variety of different manufacturers, using an Intel chipset, and an Intel board, again manufactured by a variety of manufacturers, using a VIA chipset.

Option 1: Intel Boards using Intel Chipsets

If you want an Intel board and Intel chipset you are going to be faced with a dizzying array of options. At a minimum, you have six choices: 440BX boards, i810 DC-100 boards, i810e boards, i815 boards, i815e boards, and i820 boards.

1 (a) The Safe Budget Option: 440 BX boards

The BX chipset is the most proven chipset on the market today. It is certainly both the most stable and compatible chipset Intel has produced. It was first introduced in around 1987, yet is still produced in huge volumes.

As our expert told us: "Manufacturers keep introducing new models to keep the BX alive. Why? Because it is safe and reliable." There is a trade-off for knowing that your system is going to work, however. The BX chipset does not include major new innovations, of which ATA100/66, 4X AGP and support for 133MHz SDRAM, are the most critical.

1 (b) The 'New' Budget Option I: Intel i810 DC-100

The 810 chipset is very hard to recommend for two reasons. First, the 810 supports a (low) 100 Front Side Bus (FSB) speed, a potential bottleneck in high speed systems. Second, the 810 was primary designed for Celeron processors, Intel's CPU for the budget, first time user market.

Intel, in its wisdom, made a mistake however, in taking the cost-cutting exercise too far by dumping under-performing, non-upgradeable i752, 4X AGP graphics and AC '97 sound systems on the 810 boards. Combined with a Celeron, the result has seen PCs so minimal as to be suitable only for thin clients. The fundamental problem of the 810 is that there is no option to disable the onboard i752 graphics system, to upgrade to a better graphics board.

1 (c) The Second 'New' Budget Option II: Intel i810e

Supposedly an advance on the standard 810, the 810e in fact offers all the limitations of the 810 - but adds support for a 133 FSB speed, pretty pointless given the limitations built into the system as standard. Our summary: A board with non-upgradeable graphics is a compromise solution. A board with poor non-upgradeable graphics is a limitation.

1 (d) The 'New' Premium Option: Intel i820 (RAMBUS)

The 820 is the revolution that promised everything for Pentium III power users, but, in practice, delivered confusion and recalls. Technologically, the i820 spec sheet reads like a lesson in perfection. Supporting a 133 FSB speed, 4 x AGP, ATA66 and, best of all, a radical new memory RAMBUS.

RAMBUS, supposedly a major solution to the memory bottleneck on high-end systems, has in fact delivered a very expensive list of casualties, these even including a recall by Intel. Our own research has found legion examples of system slow-down when moving to 256MB of RAMBUS, not to mention the fact that in our Grouptests only 800 RAMBUS in practice delivers tangible speed benefits over its (133) SDRAM counterpart - at up to five times the cost. Our verdict: Avoid RAMBUS.

1 (e) The 'New' Mid-Range Option: Intel i820 (133 SDRAM)

Intel's counter-measures against the RAMBUS mistep, required the introduction of a new Memory Transfer Hub (MTH) chip to allow the i820 boards to be used with 133 SDRAM. The result was a second problem for Intel because the MTH failed, resulting in a recall of 133 SDRAM i820 boards, loaded with the MTH costing the processor giant more than US$ 2 billion.

1 (f) The Latest Budget Replacement: Intel i815

Intel's latest chipset, the 815, follows not on the heels of the proven BX, but, rather, the 810 chipset. This does offer the benefit of ATA66 and improved onboard (i754 graphics), but the new graphics chip is again extremely weak. On a positive note, Intel has learned a big lesson and this time you can upgrade the graphics by disabling the onboard 754.

On a negative note, why is Intel shipping relatively sub-standard graphics with any of its boards? Our source also claims that the 815 is not intended by Intel to be anything other than a stop-gap, short-term filler, until the problem with RAMBUS is solved with a next-generation of board.

1 (f) The Latest Mid-Range Replacement: Intel i815e.

The higher-end 815e adds southbridge with ICH2 support for ATA100. In practice, however, the problems with the 815 family, identified above, more than outweigh the benefits of greater throughput. The 815 boards have been stable in our Labs tests - but what is the point of investing in a sub-standard graphics system that the majority of users - and manufacturers - will automatically replace?

Intel Chipsets: The WinLabs Verdict

We recommend the BX chipset with a 100FSB for budget users - and those willing to overclock their Celeron II 533 or 566 systems (we estimate that, with a good board, a speed of 800 MHz is practical). Even with the 100FSB limitation, this will outperform a Pentium III 600.

Our expert agrees: "This is certainly true for business applications and, even on graphics, the 250% price differential between PIII and Celeron II processors will make this an attractive option for many users. Certainly for budget, non-gaming home and business users, it is very difficult to recommend the Pentium III."

For gamers, again we recommend the BX, but with a 133FSB and a graphics board supporting a transfer speed of 89MHz. This includes Creative's GeForce/ GeForce2/MX boards, Asus GeForce/GeForce2/MX boards, ELSA's GeForce board and Voodoo's 3500 & 5500 boards amongst others.

It seems crazy to be recommending a board three years old, and one which does not support the Pentium III, but we resent being made to pay for a (poor) graphics subsystem which we will not use as is the case with the i815 or i815e. If you must have Pentium III, then the 815 boards are your only option and at least, unlike the catalogue of disasters before them, they are stable and workable.

Finally, be warned: Our insider believes, in an unconfirmed report, that Intel has now withdrawn its 1GHz processor following serious flaws in its design.

Option 2: Intel Boards using VIA Chipsets

VIA now controls more than 60% of chipset market share - little wonder given the failures of Intel's alternative. And VIA's 693A chipset delivers on many of the omissions of Intel's (comparable) BX offering. It is cheaper than the BX - and supports ATA66.

The VIA 694X ups the ante still further, with support for 4X AGP, 4 x USB, ATA66 and 133FSB. Unlike Intel's boards, you can also control the relationship between the memory and FSB, meaning you can run 133 SDRAM even on an FSB100.

The drawback? "VIA chipsets have weak points on graphics and compatibility, but VIA provides excellent BIOS and patch support whenever an issue is identified. We can say that the VIA 694X is the best chipset so far for a cost-effective 133MHz solution."

Option 3: The AMD Option

AMD's offerings are simple. This does not mean they are worse than Intel's, in fact far from it. The fact is that an Intel chipset cannot come close to matching either Duron or ThunderBird. The VIA KT133 chipset features 4X AGP, ATA100 and sound - and includes support for CPU ratio options from the BIOS - allowing simple, jumperless overclocking on most boards.

The alternative VIA KX133 does present some compatibility issues with PC-133 memory, so we recommend insisting on the KT133. According to our expert: "Because of the advanced architecture of current AMD CPUs - and given EV6's 200 FSB - the AMD solutions are faster than Intel's, and cheaper. Duron 600 almost equals PIII 500 performance in business applications but with a 40% lower price tag. And the Duron 600 is easily overclocked to 850MHz with the right board."

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