Big Business: 18 P4 boards In Price / Performance Face-Off

Maximum Possible Effectiveness: Hardware Features

One board (Abit) only supports USB 1.1 with 12 mbps, as it works with Intel's ICH2 (82801BA). You can still get along with that today, but you need patience if external hard drives are going to be attached. USB 2.0 allows up to 480 mbps, while the old 1.1 standard can only send 12 mbps.

Almost all boards offer, depending on the chipset, AGP 8X ; only the boards from Abit, Biostar, and Elitegroup support only AGP 4X. But until now, this has not proven to be a disadvantage, which means this minus should not affect your purchasing decision.

One of the most important features of an all-purpose computer is a sound system . While users who are audiophiles still reach first for the fancy sound cards, the home or office user usually has an on-board system thrust upon them. It is extremely cheap to integrate it onto the motherboard, it can be switched off if necessary, and it is usually of adequate quality.

Theoretically, the CPU usage of a codec-based solution is higher, but considering today's computing power levels, this is hardly significant. Many boards also offer connectors for digital sound outputs; it is still up to each manufacturer to include an adapter with which the S/PDIF ports (Sony/Philips Digital Interface) can be used.

Today a network connection is almost indispensable. Gigabit Ethernet (1,000 mbps) is still gaining momentum, but still costs considerably more than the 100 MBit version, 100BaseTX. For gigabit hubs or switches, people are still easily shelling out several hundred Euros for corresponding systems; for home use, however, 100 MB Ethernet is still recommended. Many motherboards already come with a corresponding RJ45 port; only the boards from Acorp, Gigabyte, QDI, and XFX make do without.

IEEE1394a - alias FireWire - has, along with USB 2.0, blossomed into the main standard for external devices of all kinds. Particularly external drives and digital video cameras can hardly do without this interface, which operates isochronously (i.e. in real time) with 400 mbps. Only AOpen, Intel and Soyo sent boards for testing that were equipped with a FireWire controller. FIC offers this as an option.

However, Serial ATA is also gaining in importance. With up to 150 mbps and compact, easily manipulated cables, the new standard will replace UltraATA/100 or 133 within the next 12 months. Intel has been offering the ICH5 with two Serial ATA ports since spring, VIA is currently following suit with the Southbridge 8237 and SiS offers a serial controller with SiS964. These chips all offer two ports; the two UltraATA controllers remain for the nonce.

Integration into the chipset is important mainly as a guide for the entire market: All chipmakers are now giving Serial ATA their full attention. Now, corresponding hard drives are also available from all major brands: Hitachi, Maxtor, Seagate, and Western Digital are now equipping their flagships with Serial ATA - which shows how the market for Serial ATA is also growing.

Really, the lack of an integrated controller is not yet a tragic loss, because Serial ATA controllers for the PCI bus can be purchased anyway.