Can MicroATX Boards Do the Job?

MicroATX Mania

With the advent of Intel’s Core 2 processors, the desktop market began to divide into two segments. Users on a tight budget most likely found the best deal with AMD’s Athlon 64 X2, while the performance-hungry crowd insisted on a Core 2 processor. However, while AMD is working hard on fighting back in the upper end by trying to get its new Phenom X2 and X4 processors to market before the holiday shopping season, Intel has focused on attacking the low end by dumping cheap processors on the market. We looked at three MicroATX motherboards that are suitable for Intel’s low-cost processors, such as the Pentium Dual Core. Not only can you find these products in business PCs, but they also present a nice platform for home theater PCs.

I want to keep discussing the processor choices, since they usually determine the platform selection as well. If performance is not an issue, the question of whether to go with AMD or Intel becomes almost negligible ; AMD processors typically have lower energy requirements when running idle or under low loads. In contrast, Intel’s Core 2 family offers better performance and energy efficiency when heavy calculation is required.

In addition, AMD has the advantage of its integrated memory controller. Intel still builds this component into the chipset Northbridge, whereas AMD’s approach allows for lower energy consumption. At the end of the day, AMD’s optimized 90 nm DSL SOI process (dual stress liner, silicon on insulator) manages to keep pace with Intel’s 65 nm, second generation strained silicon by being more efficient. At the same time, a faster Intel processor may complete tasks earlier, which allows it to switch into the most efficient performance state (p-state) earlier. Finally, other components such as the motherboard or the power supply can have a significant impact on system power consumption, which eventually makes it impossible for either AMD or Intel to come out as a clear winner.

We had asked all of the large motherboard manufacturers to send us their latest products based on Intel’s integrated G33 chipset. This core logic product largely equals the P35, supporting FSB1333 and DDR2 memory together with the latest ICH9 Southbridge, but it comes with the integrated GMA3100 graphics unit. So far, we’ve only received three motherboards : from ECS, Gigabyte and MSI. Others either have skipped the G33 in favor of the upcoming G35 (Abit), weren’t able to meet our deadline (Biostar) or do not produce G33 products at all.

The G35 will be the better product due to an improved DirectX 10 compliant graphics unit, but basic performance will be very much the same. We consider the integrated graphics to be suitable for Windows and video playback, but not for taking on serious 3D tasks. From this standpoint, we strongly recommend that you upgrade any integrated graphics solution with a discrete graphics card if you have fallen in love with a new game, or if you have to work with other 3D graphics applications.

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