Intel Core-Logic Cagematch: Motherboard Roundup!

Nathan Edwards

It pays to be an Intel fan these days. You have not only the supremely powerful Penryn CPU in your corner, but  also a host of performance-oriented, feature-packed motherboards to choose from. Contributing to the bounty are two recently released enthusiast core-logic chipsets—Intel’s own X48 and Nvidia’s nForce 790i Ultra SLI—which represent the pinnacle of LGA775 computing.

Long delayed, but much anticipated, the X48 is a sequel to Intel’s impressive but short-lived X38 chipset. While the latter worked with Intel’s premiere Core 2 Extreme QX9770 CPU, the X48 offers official 1,600MHz front-side-bus support. It also offers support for DDR3, PCI Express 2.0, and CrossFire X.

The 790i chipset also offers 1,600MHz FSB support, DDR3, and native PCI-E 2.0, but it diverges from X48 in its support for SLI multi-videocard configs.

Sounds fairly straightforward, but choosing a motherboard is far from simple. Even two chipsets that offer similar features can differ markedly in performance. And the variations even persist within different mobos using the same chipset. There’s likely to be significant deviation between vendor A’s nForce motherboard and vendor B’s product.

While they share the same basic core logic, the boards reflect each vendor’s unique approach to leveraging the chipset’s features. From the number of PCI Express slots, to the location of USB ports, to how the BIOS is written and optimized, a motherboard’s design is no small matter.

That’s why we’ve called in four of the hottest Intel-based motherboards currently available, two representing X48 and two representing 790i. We’ll put these boards through their paces to determine a winner in each camp—and ultimately, the superior chipset.

X48 and 790i Reviews:

Naturally, AMD fans will wonder, where's the love? After all, AMD's performance 790FX chipset offers comparable features for its processors. Not to worry. We have reviews of two top-of-the-line 790FX motherboards too.

790FX Reviews:

Next: The Facts on Multiple GPUs, PCI-E 2.0, DDR3, and More!

The Facts about Chipsets and Multiple Videocards

If you have a 30-inch high-resolution display, your games may get a serious performance boost if you run more than one videocard. But know this: You’ll have to choose your GPUs before you buy your motherboard because multiple Nvidia cards must run on boards that support SLI. This means you’re pretty much restricted to Nvidia’s nForce chipset. And that chipset will not support AMD GPUs in a CrossFire config, but Intel chipsets will. In other words, if you want to eventually run multiple videocards, don’t buy an nForce motherboard and an AMD graphics card.

And another thing: While the boards reviewed here support two or more graphics cards at high speeds, not all motherboards do. Some boards have just one x16 PCI-E slot; others have an unbalanced PCI-E configuration, in which one slot runs at x16 data rates and another runs at just x4. This can impact performance, so know what you want to do before you purchase your motherboard.

PCI Express 2.0: One Better than Its Predecessor

PCI-E 2.0 is exactly what it sounds like: a sequel to the phenomenally successful PCI-E 1.0. In a nutshell, it doubles the bandwidth of PCI-E 1.0, so an x16 slot goes from 8GB/s to 16GB/s. To take advantage of the extra bandwidth, you need a newer PCI-E 2.0-compliant videocard, such as the GeForce 8800 GT or the Radeon HD 3870. And with double the bandwidth you can expect faster graphics, right? Of course not.

Given today’s games and 2.0 graphics cards, the added capability doesn’t pay huge dividends. It’s best to think of PCI Express 2.0 the way you thought of SATA 3GB or any other newfangled infrastructure upgrade. You lay the road before it gets choked with cars. Newer applications and newer cards will eventually consume that bandwidth.

We’re not yet at the point where PCI-E 2.0 support is a make-or-break deal, but regardless, you’d be hard-pressed to find a new high-performance board that lacks it.

DDR3 Is Here—Get Used to It

If there’s one thing we know, it’s that changes in memory technology rarely go over well. The move from PC100 SDRAM to Direct RDRAM was a disaster, and the move from DDR to DDR2 wasn’t pretty either. People bitch and moan when it’s time to toss their RAM.

Well, we’ve got news for you, Bubba, it’s time to switch yet again. If you care about performance, if you want to see your RAM clocking in at 1,800MHz data rates, then DDR3 is the only game in town. It’s even getting affordable. While many people still think 2GB of DDR3 costs $500, you can actually get it for $120. You won’t get the highest frequency or the lowest latency DDR3 RAM for that price, but it sure as hell makes DDR3 performance more accessible than it was six months ago.

That said, DDR2 is still a viable option, which should console folks who have a ton of it around or just aren’t after that extra bit of performance. Just know that most motherboard vendors are offering only their very best models in DDR3 trim.

Onboard Audio Isn't That Sucky

Hardware aficionados and audio snobs will naturally look down their noses at “free” onboard audio, but it’s really not that bad—at least, not when compared with the onboard audio of five years ago.

Today, onboard audio is very sophisticated and capable of offering real-time Dolby Digital encoding, SPDIF and optical I/O, and surround-sound capabilities. In other words, it’s good enough for most people. Of course, not all onboard audio is the same. The particular audio chip on the motherboard, where it’s mounted, and the software that runs it are all critical to a mobo’s sound quality. Some board vendors also use risers to get sensitive audio parts away from the electrically noisy surface of the motherboard. The most popular chip is Realtek, which until very recently had questionable EAX support. Chips by Sigmatel Audio and Analog Devices are also popular. We generally prefer Analog Devices, followed by Sigmatel and Realtek.

Next: Picking the Right Board

The Big Decision

When all is said and done, which is the right board for you, and why?

It’s pretty clear from the verdicts that the nForce 790i Ultra SLI chipset is the winner. Yes, our verdicts take into account a motherboard’s amenities and layout, but performance is a critical factor. And performance is the result of the chipset—its design, but more importantly, its memory controller. And sure enough, the nForce boards excelled in our memory tests, as well as a majority of the other benchmarks.

Mind you, this was a win by decision, not a clear knockout. Several benchmarks resulted in a virtual tie, with all the boards turning in similar scores when the margin of error was factored in. But still, a win is a win all the same.

It’s just icing on the cake for the nForce crowd that the two boards featuring the 790i chipset also include other important features, although to differing degrees. The Asus Striker II Extreme is jam-packed with bells and whistles and overclocks like nobody’s business, but it costs $100 more than the already pricey EVGA 790i SLI Ultra board and had inferior scores in our gaming benchmarks (however, we suspect that gap will close when Asus releases a BIOS update).

EVGA’s board, on the other hand, is simply a solid go-to Nvidia reference design that delivers on all the 790i’s key features. Both are more than respectable, so choosing between them will come down to personal preference—and your budget.

Admittedly, an nForce chipset isn’t a practical solution for everyone, specifically folks who either have dual ATI videocards or are planning to run a CrossFire X setup in the future. We have good news for them. Gigabyte’s X48T-DQ6 is a solid runner up, with the advantages of a reliable Intel chipset. It’s also fairly tweakable. There’s certainly no shame in owning this motherboard. In fact, Intel should model its own boards on the X48T-DQ6’s design.

In the end, however, even the best boards here aren’t perfect. There’s always room for innovation and improvement. Turn the page to see some of the radical new features we’d like to see in future mobo designs.

Next: Our Dream Motherboard!

One Mother of a Board

If you could make the ultimate motherboard, what would it be? We sat back, rubbed our eyes until we saw stars, and imagined what the ideal motherboard would look like.

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