If you think old motherboards go off to die long, slow deaths in an e-waste dump or silver reclamation plant, think again. Motherboards that have made a significant contribution are elevated to star status where they live forever.
Not all boards are worthy of the Motherboard Hall, of course. In fact, our list notably starts with ATX and moves forward. Why no AT or Baby AT boards? When was the last time someone thought wistfully of a 1992 VL-Bus motherboard? Those boards of old, while certainly heroic, hark back to a day when the component received little attention or enthusiasm—a time before it had realized its true potential.
You’ll also notice that our list doesn’t include any boards made in the last three years. We’ve intentionally excluded modern boards because it remains to be seen how much of an impact they’ll make over time. Even today’s most stellar boards, such as EVGA’s Classified SR-2—the board we used in this year’s Dream Machine, and an obvious contender for the Hall—are still too young to get inducted.
The reverence owed to the 10 boards you’ll see here, however, is unquestionable, as you’ll learn when we recount their respective roles in modern motherboard history. But if there are others you feel we’ve overlooked, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Intel's first ATX board and Triton chipset schooled the competition
It didn’t have a splashy name (hell, we’re not sure if it even had a name), but Intel’s Socket 7 “Advanced ATX/Baseboard” was a tectonic shift in the mobo scene. First, it used Intel’s 430FX Triton, which arguably marked Intel’s emergence as the core-logic chipset leader. Before that, third-party chipset manufacturers such as Opti, ALi, SiS, and VIA vied for control. The Triton series turned those other chipset makers into overnight has-beens. The Advanced ATX/Baseboard was also the first ATX board that we know of. A new formfactor designed to take us beyond AT and Baby AT, ATX has withstood the test of time and continues to dominate 15 years later. Even Intel’s own attempt to kill ATX with BTX came to naught.
Overclocking was never the same again
Defunct motherboard maker Abit’s main claim to fame was its “SoftMenu.” Before the appearance of the soft jumpers, no one had made a mass-market motherboard that let you overclock the front-side bus and other features in the BIOS. Other boards required you to power down, crack open the case, and flip DIP packages or throw jumpers. The soft jumpers first made an appearance in the Abit IT5H as well as the Abit BX6, but the SoftMenu seemed to really hit its stride with the Abit BH6, which some reviewers called the “perfect” 440BX motherboard. How big of an impact did the BH6 have? Today, you can’t find an enthusiast motherboard that doesn’t use a BIOS-based overclocking feature
Perhaps the most famous motherboard of all time
Prior to Abit’s BP6, consumers didn’t run dual processors. But in a bold move that gained the attention and respect of PC enthusiasts, Abit built its BP6 specifically for the purpose of running two Celeron CPUs in symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) mode, despite the fact that Intel had disabled dual-proc support in those chips. Practically overnight, the BP6 became the poor-man’s workstation board, allowing consumers to build affordable dual-processor machines for the first time. Built on Intel’s 440BX chipset, the BP6 didn’t just let you run two Socket 370 chips, it also let you overclock them. A common configuration was two 300MHz Celeron’s overclocked to 450MHz. The BP6 was such an oddity that it didn’t even work with the standard OS of the time, Windows 98. Consumers had to run Windows NT, BeOS, or Linux to get that second processor to show up to the dance.
He pulls a Pentium III, you pull an Athlon... That's the AMD way
There’s a line from The Untouchables that explains the SD11. In the movie, Elliot Ness is told, “Everybody knows where the booze is. The problem isn’t finding it, the problem is who wants to cross Capone.” In late 1999, it wasn’t difficult to make an Athlon mobo (although they were pricier than typical boards of the day), but crossing Intel was another matter. Real or imagined, boards vendors were scared crapless of angering the chip giant.
Of those vendors, FIC was the first to cowboy up by not only making the SD11, but also daring to sell it. Sure, the board had electrical and compatibility issues, but when other vendors saw that Intel really didn’t seem to care about Athlon, they, too, broke out designs they were previously too afraid to air publicly. We still believe that if not for the SD11, it’s possible the Athlon and its descendants wouldn’t be here.
The first good Athlon board
MSI certainly didn’t earn a chapter in Profiles in Motherboard Courage when it came “out” with the MS-6167. You couldn’t find the Athlon-compatible mobo on the company’s website, and inquiries to the company about the board were met with silent stares. Despite such caginess, the MS-6167 deserves recognition for being the first solid Athlon motherboard on the market. It was fast and reliable enough to blow the doors off any Pentium III–equipped contemporaries. Unlike the finicky SD11 board, the MS-6167 used AMD’s “Irongate” chipset for both the north and south bridges, which proved to be a wise decision in the long term. While the AMD south bridge had its own problems, we’ll always have a soft spot for MSI’s MS-6167 and the blazing-fast Athlon chip that paired with it.
Next Page: Mobo Hall of Fame continued »
DDR gains the upper hand over RDRAM
DDR is taken for granted today, but at the turn of the millennium, there was a Tolkien-esque struggle between DDR and RDRAM for the future of the PC, with Intel and Rambus in one camp and a coalition of AMD, DDR manufacturers, and chipset makers in the other. The K7T266 Pro 2 may have been Pippin, but its role was nonetheless important. With AMD’s and Ali’s DDR chipsets faltering, it was up to VIA to prop up the fallen standard. VIA’s first attempt, the KT266, didn’t cut it, leading many to question DDR’s fate. But VIA’s second attempt, the KT266A, was the white knight DDR needed. Boards based on the chipset, such as MSI’s K7T266 Pro 2, combined with DDR and an Athlon CPU, helped secure DDR as the standard for PC main memory, and even helped beat back the vaunted Pentium 4 in many subsequent CPU battles. We fondly remember the K7T266 Pro 2 for being a loyal foot soldier in the great memory wars.
The sun sets on VIA but rises for Nvidia
The A7N8X Deluxe was trend-setting in many ways. The chipset in it, the nForce 2 SPP, was the first runaway hit for Nvidia’s newly minted chipset division, and the A7N8X Deluxe was the pinnacle of nForce 2 boards. Among its noteworthy features was the ability to encode audio streams in real time to Dolby Digital Live and pump them out via optical or coax. This made the board ideal for a system that would be paired with a home theater receiver. The other story behind the A7N8X was its performance. Normally, motherboard performance comparisons can be pretty boring, as the CPU does all the heavy lifting. But the nForce 2’s superior memory performance enabled the A7N8X Deluxe to thrash two other VIA-based boards in a showdown we ran back in 2003. In many ways, the nForce2 and the A7N8X marked the end of VIA’s dominance in AMD chipsets—a position VIA had held since the introduction of its popular and fast KT266A chipset.
The kitchen-sink approach
Remember when even a high-end board came with just cables, an I/O shield, and a flimsy manual? That changed with Chaintech’s 9JCS Zenith. While certainly a good motherboard with premium chips and pack-leading performance, what made the 9JCS Zenith so memorable was the incredible amount of add-ons that Chaintech included with it. Besides the cables, you also got a riser board for audio, a screwdriver, a bay drive with memory card readers and IR receiver, and a remote control, too. The only thing the board didn’t come with was a box of Cracker Jacks.
It didn’t take long for competing companies to follow in the steps of Chaintech’s kitchen-sink approach with their own bundles of over-the-top accessories. So, when you crack open your next packed-to-the-gills enthusiast motherboard, say a little “thank you” to the 9JCS Zenith.
The first Intel board that gave you serious overclocking features
There was a period when we didn’t bother to review Intel motherboards. Not because they weren’t interesting or unique, but because enthusiasts didn’t give a damn about Intel CPUs in the heyday of the Athlon 64. With badly ignored Pentium 4s came badly ignored motherboards. Intel’s Core 2 flipped the world on end overnight, leaving fanboys and even the jaded tech press awestruck that the tables could be turned so rapidly. Intel stepped out of that void with its D975XBX “Bad Axe” mobo. Designed to address complaints that its boards didn’t appeal to enthusiasts, the Bad Axe actually supported—gasp—overclocking. The D975XBX even sported a little ’tude, with heatsinks shaped like flames. Boards from Asus, MSI, Gigabyte, and others would eventually overtake the D975XBX in features, bling, and overclocking capabilities, but when we think of the stunning debut of Core 2, we’ll always think of the D975XBX, too.
Nvidia aces Intel at its own game: performance chipsets for Intel CPUs
Nothing proved that Nvidia was a force to be reckoned with more than EVGA’s nForce 680i SLI board. Essentially a clone of the Nvidia reference boards, the EVGA nForce 680i SLI demonstrated the benefits of a chipset designed to work closely with graphics cards. Besides offering the obvious SLI benefits with the GeForce 8800 GTX, the nForce 680i SLI would overclock the PCI Express slots and also introduced the concept of embedding memory profiles to overclock the RAM. The board and chipset weren’t perfect—said PCI-E overclocking feature was eventually pulled—and many users reported problems with Sound Blaster soundcards. Despite those issues, the nForce 680i SLI was a sweet setup for many years.
Next Page: The Most Unusual Motherboards »
Still rolling pressed vinyl? Then you’ll appreciate AOpen’s AX4B-533 Tube Motherboard. Yes, a board with a vacuum tube to give that cold digital audio a nice warm “analog” sound. Did it work well? Well, it’s pretty tough to make onboard audio sound better, even when piped through an analog circuit that the mobo maker has put a lot of time and engineering into.
It’s hard to determine which board was the first with the garish colors, but we believe Soyo’s P4X400 may have been ground zero. With its purple expansion slots and a silver-painted (the paint was practically still wet when we got it) PCB, the P4X400 brought the original bling.
You can’t say that AOpen isn’t different. The company’s i855 GMEm-LFS took the unusual step of letting you mount a mobile Pentium M chip in a desktop motherboard. Why? Pentium Ms ran cooler (something no Prescott P4 ever claimed) and also performed quite well.
ECS’s PF88 was a truly insane idea. The board started off with an LGA775 socket for Pentium 4 support. Not satisfied with P4? No problem, drop in a large SIMA daughter board and start running an Athlon 64 in Socket 939 trim. Other SIMA cards planned for the board included Socket 478 and Pentium M support. The SIMA card actually contained a new chipset and RAM slots, and pretty much disabled the chipset on the motherboard.
You aren’t giving up your AGP card until they rip it out of your cold, dead hands? Well, then peep Asrock’s AliveDual-eSATA2 board. This unusual motherboard, which Asrock introduced this year, supports PCI-E GPU or AGP! Yes, AGP! Asrock pulls off this trick by using two different chipsets on the board: an Nvidia M1695, and for the AGP, an nForce3 250.