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Compact P55: Four MicroATX Motherboards Tried And Tested

Compact P55: Four MicroATX Motherboards Tried And Tested
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Thomas Soderstrom already took a look at five mainstream Core i5 ATX motherbords in October, and he followed up in November with eight premium products. Now it’s time to look at reasonably-priced microATX motherboards designed to accommodate that LGA 1156 interface and discrete graphics solutions.

MicroATX

The microATX form factor is today's standard for all types of PCs that need to be small, cheap, or both. Qualifying as inexpensive usually matters most to office machines, student PCs, and other entry-level systems. As a result, microATX platforms have become somewhat synonymous with lower budgets and minimalistic feature sets. They typically have only a few expansion slots, fewer memory sockets, and less elaborate bundles of on-board integration. However, these are generalizations, not hard and fast rules. Many exceptions exist, including the four boards in this review.

Intel’s LGA 1156 interface was introduced last year, supporting the Core i5 and Core i7 processors in mid- to higher-end markets. All processors available through the beginning of 2010 came with four cores, but the dual-core models for this platform (code-named Clarkdale) launched at this year's CES 2010. The new Core i5 and Core i3 CPUs, manufactured at 32nm, come with an on-package 45nm graphics processor/PCIe/memory controller and require an H55, H57, or Q57 chipset to utilize the platform's integrated graphics. However, it's also possible to drop the new dual-core processors into a P55 motherboard, such as the ones we'll look at today.

Regardless of your processor and chipset choice, Intel's current mainstream platform is highly integrated and only consists of the processor and the Platform Controller Hub (PCH). Compared to three-chip core logic designs, such as the 3- and 4-series families (comprised of a processor, Memory Controller Hub [MCH], and I/O Controller Hub [ICH]), motherboard complexity drops significantly with a two-chip design, resulting in even smaller board footprints that are easier to design. Naturally, this is a boon to the value-seekers, unless you insist on a plethora of features and interfaces, which you'll find on enthusiast-class LGA 1156 motherboards.

Keep in mind that microATX is compatible with full-size ATX, meaning that you can install the smaller boards into all regular ATX cases. Let’s look at what the microATX segment of the P55 market has in store.

Intel P55 Express Chipset

With the introduction of its Nehalem architecture, Intel finally made a move that AMD had realized was a good idea back in 2003: integrating the memory controller into the processor. This performance-enhancing decision applies to the LGA 1366-based enthusiast platform as, well as the Lynnfield-based LGA 1156 ecosystem (but not as much to the new Clarkdale chips, which include on-package, but not on-die memory controllers). While the enthusiast platform utilizes three channels of DDR3 memory, mainstream P55 runs on dual-channel DDR3. This isn’t a real disadvantage, as our Core i7/i5 efficiency shootout revealed.

The PCI Express interface now is part of the processor, rather than situated on the chipset. Core i5/i7 CPUs for LGA 1156 (and centering on the quad-core Lynnfield design) allow either one x16 PCI Express 2.0 connection or two x8 connections for dual graphics setups. Core i3/i5 CPUs based on Clarkdale don't let you divide up the PCIe connectivity at all, unfortunately.

None of the reviewed boards actually makes use of the switches needed to achieve a x8/x8 configuration, but all except Foxconn still offer two physical x16 slots. The secondary slots are driven by four 2.5 GT/s lanes from the PCH, which we've shown is not ideal for dual-card configurations. Foxconn also makes the equivalent four lanes available through a x4 PCIe slot, more correctly conveying its usefulness paired to high-end storage and network controllers.

As mentioned, all PCIe lanes exceeding the Core i5 processor’s 16 have to be derived from the P55 chipset (unless you're looking at a board with Nvidia's nForce 200 bridge chip, which can multiplex the CPU's connectivity into 32 lanes). P55 itself serves up a total of eight lanes. Intel calls them PCI Express 2.0-compliant, but they only run at half-speed, achieving bandwidth comparable to previous-generation PCIe links. Consequently, we advise against running serious dual graphics setups on these microATX boards.

The P55 PCH also offers 14 USB 2.0 ports, an HD Audio controller, and six SATA/300 ports with AHCI and Native Command Queuing, as well as RAID support (through Intel’s Matrix Storage Technology). All of this can be considered pretty much standard across any P55-based platform.

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Top Comments
  • 11 Hide
    dirtmountain , January 29, 2010 6:15 AM
    Cool! So far that's only 26 P55 motherboards tested. You're only about 1/3 of the way through testing every P55 board available at Newegg. Keep up the good work.
Other Comments
  • 3 Hide
    tacoslave , January 29, 2010 6:10 AM
    Intel should have made a universal socket so you could put a i3 or an i7 in the same board. Just want to throw that out there.
  • 11 Hide
    dirtmountain , January 29, 2010 6:15 AM
    Cool! So far that's only 26 P55 motherboards tested. You're only about 1/3 of the way through testing every P55 board available at Newegg. Keep up the good work.
  • 0 Hide
    notty22 , January 29, 2010 7:59 AM
    Theres a mistake about the MSI board, SLI certification is NOT given to this hardware . From what I've read, its a minimum of 8x 8x to qualify.
    http://us.msi.com/index.php?func=prodmbspec&maincat_no=1&cat2_no=170&cat3_no=&prod_no=1890#menu
    SLI certification also adds to the cost of the board.
  • 0 Hide
    falchard , January 29, 2010 8:18 AM
    Wow an MSI low end board that didn't die. If they can keep this up they will be ASUS's main competitor.
  • 0 Hide
    micky_lund , January 29, 2010 9:59 AM
    woot for gigabyte..too bad they didn't test the ud4 a while ago, with the budget boards >:( 
  • 0 Hide
    foody , January 29, 2010 10:10 AM
    tacoslaveIntel should have made a universal socket so you could put a i3 or an i7 in the same board. Just want to throw that out there.

    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16819115214&cm_re=i7-_-19-115-214-_-Product

    I know what you meant but still, technically you were wrong.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , January 29, 2010 12:18 PM
    I see that the max power requirement with overclocking was 256w.
    Does this mean that the 750w psu used was a overkill?
    Or more importantly- could this setup work with a 400w psu with sufficient
    amp. on 12v rail?
  • 0 Hide
    icerock , January 29, 2010 12:59 PM
    Very nice, keep up de good work. But it would be nice to see some h55/h57 motherboards tested in the near future.
  • -2 Hide
    Reynod , January 29, 2010 1:53 PM
    Good point icerock

    +1
  • 3 Hide
    thejerk , January 29, 2010 3:31 PM
    Another win from Gigabyte. Awesome!
  • 0 Hide
    tpi2007 , January 29, 2010 4:04 PM
    I helped my computer illiterate cousin set up a relatively affordable computer but with decent components and brand new technolgy running a brand new Core i3 530 and the motherboard of choice was this Gigabyte model being reviewed here.

    And although the board is only supposed to support the new new dual-core Core i3's and i5's from Bios version F6, I was able to boot it using the factory F3! So no hassles in trying to get the neighbours i5 750 to boot it up and upgrade the bios.

    I know articles like this are normally written sometimes weeks in advance, but I wonder if Bios F6 or even F7c have any impact on lowering power consumption ?

    Anyway, I find it a very good board for the money, very nice touches like eSata, lots of internal Sata ports, and all the Ultra Durable 3 quality features; it's got everything a person could want (except if you have lot of add-on cards and/or want to run Crossfire or SLi.)

    But I'm left with a question: the first photo that shows all the motherboard bozes on top of each other has and Asus model, but you didn't review it. What happened ?
  • 0 Hide
    JohnnyLucky , January 29, 2010 5:12 PM
    Good article. Looks like we are heading toward a more complete form of standardization. As usual, thanks for inlcuding mainstream benchmarks.
  • -1 Hide
    etrnl_frost , January 29, 2010 5:30 PM
    It's about time. Now I can start looking at a PC update... my mini p180 case awaits Windows 7! I feel like I need to get with the times :) 
  • 0 Hide
    lothdk , January 29, 2010 5:47 PM
    As others have said, what happened to the Asus board you have pictured?
    Also, on page 6 you have the ASRock listed as having 2 PS/2 Mouse ports.
  • -3 Hide
    chechak , January 29, 2010 5:48 PM
    i just wait for NVIDIA NEW CHIPSET
  • -1 Hide
    chechak , January 29, 2010 5:49 PM
    i 'll just wait for new nvidia chip also new nvidia GPU card ...like it or not
  • 0 Hide
    masterasia , January 29, 2010 6:25 PM
    Out of all these boards, I would pick the MSI GD-45. It has a lot of features from it's big brothers GD-65 and GD-80. I'm currently using the GD-65 and it's pretty stable. Although, if I were to build another P55 board, I would choose the ASUS Maximus GENE III. The onboard sound on that board is pretty good.
  • 0 Hide
    tacoslave , January 29, 2010 9:40 PM
    chechaki 'll just wait for new nvidia chip also new nvidia GPU card ...like it or not


    me too usually the ati's prices drop by 25% after nvidia releases there new cards and ive had my heart set on a 5870.
  • 0 Hide
    falchard , January 29, 2010 11:50 PM
    zipzoomflyhighI've owned 4 MSI board and none of them have died.


    I own an MSI board and video card too. I love them, but I also accept the fact MSI hasn't been known for their board quality. Its been increasing in recent years.
  • 0 Hide
    jojesa , January 30, 2010 2:59 AM
    They are able to cram all these in this small form factor but they cannot make a BIOS that post in less than 10 seconds.
    With Windows 7 and SSD the BIOS is becoming the bottleneck in the system, since it takes more time in the BIOS than loading the OS.
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