3.5 Our Picks

Over the years, we've tested a boatload of motherboards for Intel and AMD processors, and we've come to have some pretty strong preferences. The chipset determines the features, performance, stability, and compatibility of a motherboard, but a good chipset alone does not guarantee a good motherboard. Build quality?the care with which a motherboard is constructed and the quality of supporting components such as capacitors?is also a key factor in motherboard quality. Although it is impossible to build a good motherboard using a poor chipset, it is quite possible to build a complete dog of a motherboard around an excellent chipset. For that reason, the brand name on a motherboard is as important to its quality as the chipset it uses. Here are the motherboards we recommend:

Intel Pentium 4 or Celeron system

Intel (D865- or D875-series). We use Intel-branded motherboards almost exclusively for Intel processors, and on those few occasions when we must use a non-Intel motherboard for some reason, we try hard to choose a motherboard that at least uses an Intel chipset. Intel chipsets and motherboards are superb. They are the standard by which we judge other products in terms of stability, robustness, and build quality.

There is a reason why Intel sells motherboards by the millions to OEM system makers. Support calls cost OEMs money, and Intel motherboards generate fewer support calls than do other brands. Intel motherboards aren't always the fastest models available and they offer few overclocking options, but their build quality, reliability, and stability make them the best choice overall. If you're building a system around an Intel processor, use an Intel-branded motherboard if at all possible.

Performance system

If performance is a high priority, choose an Intel-branded motherboard based on the 875P chipset. Although it is similar to the 865, the 875P chipset includes Intel Performance Acceleration Technology, which boosts performance noticeably compared to the 865.

Mainstream system

For a mainstream system, choose an Intel-branded motherboard with an 865G chipset if you want embedded graphics, or an 865PE chipset if you want to use a separate AGP video adapter. The 865G and 865PE chipsets support the 800 MHz FSB, dual-channel PC3200 DDR-SDRAM, and Hyper-Threading Pentium 4 processors, which means a system built around one of these motherboards can have performance only a half-step behind an 875P-based system.

Economy system

If you are building a system on a tight budget, choose an Intel-branded motherboard with an 865G chipset. Although the 865P chipset motherboards are less expensive than 865G motherboards, 865P motherboards do not include embedded video. By the time you add even an inexpensive video card, an 865P system costs more than an 865G system, and is slower and less upgradeable.

AMD Athlon system

ASUS ( nVIDIA chipset). For years we lamented the lack of a stable, compatible chipset for AMD Athlon processors. We have never been satisfied with the compatibility or stability of VIA chipsets, despite their popularity. The SiS 735, 745, and 746 are solid chipsets, but have been hampered by the indifferent build quality of the inexpensive motherboards that use them. We had great hopes for the nVIDIA nForce-series chipsets, and our experience with them has justified our optimism. The nVIDIA Athlon chipsets we have tested are feature-laden, stable, robust, and compatible. We were amazed because nVIDIA had no experience designing PC chipsets, but the company got it right the first time. With the advent of these chipsets, the Athlon can finally compete with Intel processors on a level playing field.

As is always true, using an excellent chipset does not guarantee an excellent motherboard. Fortunately, at least one motherboard maker does build excellent Athlon motherboards using nVIDIA chipsets. ASUS is well known for the high build quality of its motherboards, and its nVIDIA-based models are no exception. We tested the nForce2-based ASUS A7N8X Deluxe motherboard extensively, and found it to be fast, stable, and compatible. We expect the same to be true of ASUS motherboards that use the follow-on nForce2 400 and nForce2 400 Ultra chipsets.

AMD Athlon MP SMP system

Tyan S2466 Tiger MPX. Although the AMD 760MPX chipset is beginning to show its age?no support for PC2700 or PC3200 memory, no support for the 333 MHz or 400 MHz FSB, no USB 2.0, no AGP 8X, and so on?it remains a fast, stable, compatible foundation for a dual-processor Athlon system. Several companies produce 760MPX motherboards, but the company with the most experience in making dual-Athlon motherboards is Tyan, and its S2466 Tiger MPX motherboard is a winner. If you want to build a dual-Athlon system, build it around the Tiger MPX.

If you build a system around the Tiger MPX motherboard and a pair of Athlon MP processors, do not make the mistake of using off-brand memory or a mediocre power supply. High-quality memory and reliable power are even more important to the stability of a dual-processor system than for standard systems. Use only memory modules included on the Tyan approved memory list, and use a top-quality, high-wattage power supply, such as those sold by PC Power & Cooling for dual-processor systems. We also recommend choosing a video adapter from the Tyan approved video adapters list.

We test new chipsets and motherboards constantly. For our latest motherboard recommendations by brand name and model number, visit: http://www.hardwareguys.com/picks/motherboards.html.