Until now only the major makers have offered boards for AMD's hot Socket 939 Athlon 64 processor, and they were relatively pricey. But now the motherboards for this platform have finally arrived en masse, and can be found most anywhere. Socket 939 systems work with dual-channel memory and offer high performance at an acceptable cost, making them very attractive. Unfortunately, by focusing at first only on high-end models, AMD ruined what could have been a dream launch for the platform.
The reason they did this is understandable, though. At 144 and 193 mm2 for the 512 kB and 1 MB L2 cache versions respectively, the Athlon 64 chips are not exactly small. Unlike Intel, so far AMD can only manufacture on 200mm wafers, compared to Intel's 300mm, which naturally limits the production runs. That means that AMD probably had somewhat low yield per wafer, and may not have been able to accommodate a sudden surge in demand.
But now there are processors from AMD's new 90nm production process that are generating quite a buzz, thanks to their laudably low heat dissipation. So far, AMD has released Athlon 64 processors based on the Winchester core as 3000+, 3200+ and 3500+ (1.8 to 2.2 GHz) parts - just the ones we find especially attractive, as they provide high performance at a reasonable price. Plus, they already feature plenty of leeway for overclocking.
The PCI Express chipsets that are now becoming increasingly available are meant to be an additional sales catalyst for the Athlon 64 CPUs in Socket 939. While VIA has yet to unveil the K8T890, the Radeon Xpress from ATI has thus far failed to really catch on. For that reason, every one of the first boards uses the nForce 4 Ultra from NVIDIA , which dominates in terms of both price and feature set.
But while PCI Express makes inroads, AGP isn't giving up easily. While PCI Express components are finally starting to be a good investment when it comes to buying new products, it can still make perfectly good sense to buy an AGP board. This is especially the case if your wallet still hasn't recovered from what you paid for a high-end AGP graphics card a few months ago, and you don't care to shell out again for a new one.
Finally, we'd like to mention the buzzword "SLI," which stands for "Scalable Link Interface." This NVIDIA interface enables two graphics cards to be linked so that in theory, 3D performance can be doubled. This of course requires two x16 PCIe slots for graphics cards, and the first chipset suitable to the task is NVIDIA's nForce4 SLI. A model for the Pentium 4 is slated to follow, and VIA has also been working on a similar product for quite some time. Since this market has been considered extremely exclusive and high-priced until now, we only included two SLI boards with nForce4 SLI in the test for the sake of completeness: the Asus A8N-SLI Deluxe and MSI K8N Diamond.
All other candidates are based on either VIA's K8T800 Pro (AGP), the K8T890 (PCI Express), the SiS 755FX and the NVIDIA chipsets nForce3 Ultra (AGP) and nForce 4 Ultra (PCI Express).