... And Its Competition
Please look at our X38 chipset review for more details on Intel's latest enthusiast chipset: Intel X38 Chipset - A Porsche with the Handbreak On. In a nutshell, the chipset offers marginally better performance, which alone does not make it worth buying. However, it introduces three new features, the first of which is a chipset interface that was added to the X38, allowing motherboard makers to assume control over clock settings. PCI Express 2.0 doubles the interface speed from 2.5 GHz to 5.0 GHz, resulting in 500 MB/s per lane instead of 250 MB/s. 32 lanes are supported by the X38. Both AMD/ATI and Nvidia are currently working on PCI Express 2.0 graphics solutions, which probably will appear with the next graphics chip generation. Until then, there is little use for PCI Express 2.0.
Lastly, the X38 supports Intel's Extreme Memory specification standard called XMP. It works very much like Nvidia's SLI memory, which was introduced almost a year ago. It allows the system to set the memory speed and timings to the maximum settings rather than using the conservative settings programmed into the SPD. However, XMP will only work with DDR3 memory, ensuring that you will have to pay a huge premium for the motherboard and the memory for the time being.
Nvidia nForce 680i LT SLI And 650i
The nForce 6 family is available in two basic flavors, the nForce 650 with 16 PCI Express lanes for graphics, and the 680i high-end models with 32 lanes for true dual x16 PCI Express dual graphics. All of these chipsets support the latest Core 2 processors at FSB1333 system speed. However, we recommend that you study the motherboard manual or the description on your retailer's Website before purchasing these chipsets, because they have been around before the Core 2 E6x50 FSB1333 processors.
Performance-wise, there is only little difference between an Intel and an Nvidia chipset, and a motherboard maker's decision to overclock one platform or the other by only 1-2 MHz already alters the balance of power. The Nvidia chipsets require slightly more energy than the Intel products (the X38 is an exception), but offer some features that are unique: You need an SLI-compatible chipset to deploy Nvidia SLI dual graphics. Nvidia offers a very user-friendly storage controller, which is called MediaShield. RAID 5, with up to six drives (nForce 680i) or four drives (nForce 650i), and Native Command Queuing with 300 MB/s data-rate transfers are also supported. The 680i chipsets offer twin Gigabit Ethernet ports, which allows you to connect to two different networks such as LAN and a WAN (DSL or cable), or bridge two different LANs. The 680i's network controllers are equipped with basic TCP/IP acceleration to remove load from the system CPU. However, it's not quite equivalent to an active network card with a hardware offload engine either.
The Nvidia chipsets don't yet support DDR3 memory, which we don't care too much about considering the very high DDR3 prices and the small performance gain they offer.
Good Motherboard, Bad Motherboard
There are several factors that are commonly used to tell a good motherboard apart from a bad one. However, since more and more components and features have been integrated into the chipset, the chipset is what primarily defines the main characteristics of a motherboard. If you select a decent chipset (usually a current model), you'll get a solid base on which to build before looking at several differentiating features that the motherboard offers:
- Cooling solution:
All chipsets require cooling. A simple heat sink on the Northbridge typically is sufficient unless you intend to overclock the platform. In such a case, it makes sense to watch for larger heat sinks or heat-pipe solutions that conduct heat away from hot spots. Some products are even prepared for liquid cooling solutions. The material is also important: copper heat pipes and heat sinks have a better heat conductivity than aluminum, but copper is heavier and more expensive.
- Voltage regulators:
Processors that require high currents will put the voltage regulators under high loads. Three or four phases (VR modules) are common; high-end motherboards come with six, eight or even a higher phase-count. Each phase added reduces the efficiency and increases the power requirement, but more phases enable a more reliable power supply for varying voltages and currents. It also makes sense to include the voltage regulators in a heat pipe cooling solution.
- Electrical components:
Solid capacitors are favorable, as they don't carry a liquid that could leak over time or when under high load. Motherboard makers typically talk about Japanese devices, but you will recognize solid capacitors, as they're exterior is made of a single piece of thin metal.
- Number and position of expansion slots:
The more slots, the better. However, watch for their placement and their bandwidth _ especially with multiple x16 slots where only 16 lanes are offered by the chipset.
- Clean design:
When you look at the components of your motherboard, try to imagine how you might install expansion cards and components. Sometimes, store ports will collide with long PCI Express graphics cards or DIMM slot locks. Can all headers be used or were some of them placed somewhere where it will be impossible to attach cables?
- Manufacturer support:
Last but not least, you want the motherboard manufacturer to support its product for a long time. If you decide to upgrade the processor after a certain time, you will appreciate it if the motherboard maker provides an updated BIOS version to enable support for the latest processors.