Summary: With Intel's latest round of price cuts, buying an affordable Pentium 4 system has never been easier. In light of this, we've rounded up seven of today's most popular Pentium 4 DDR motherboards in attempt to see who comes out on top. But that's not all, we'll be giving away each of these DDR motherboards! Simply answer the questions on each page for your chance to win!
The second comingSince our first roundup we published on Intel's i845 chipset, there hasn't been much excitement on the chipset front for the Pentium 4 processor. While the i845 chipset was supposed to bring the same level of performance and acceptance that we all experienced with the 440BX chipset, this wasn't going to be the case.
Initially, the i845 chipset launched with a fizzle due to the fact that it used SDR RAM instead of speedier DDR. If you remember our initial article however, you'll see that the i845 chipset has the internal horsepower to handle DDR's higher bandwidth. After boards hit the streets, it was clear that i845 wasn't going to be the chipset that was going to highlight the Pentium 4's capabilities.
Today however, we're taking a look at seven new boards that use Intel's new i845-E chipset, formally known as Brookdale. The big difference with i845E is its new south bridge. Being almost two years since Intel introduced a new south bridge to the masses, i845-E's ICH4 south bridge is certainly a welcomed change.
The first major feature that's new is support for USB 2.0. You'll now have access to high-speed 480mbps USB rather than the slower 12mbps connection. If you were hoping for changes in the ATA department however, this won't happen until sometime early next year when Serial ATA will begin to take off. In the meantime however, the i845-E chipset offers standard ATA-100 for your storage needs.
This time around, Intel has outfitted DDR RAM with the i845 and thus we have the boards we're looking at today. We'll see how much of an improvement going with DDR has made and how the boards differentiate themselves. Performance and features are what we're looking for, and if they come at a nice price, then bonus!
Before we continue, certain boards that were supposed to be included in this roundup didn't make it to us early enough. We'll be updating this article soon but for now we have seven boards for you to gorge upon.
SIDEBAR: We're giving away all seven of these motherboards! Just answer the quiz questions at the end of each motherboard reviewed for a chance to win that motherboard!
Onslaught of boards
One of the most important features being integrated on motherboards these days is support for Ethernet. Another common feature is the inclusion of ATA RAID. The most popular obviously being the solutions from Promise. HighPoint's controllers haven't taken off outside of motherboards from ABIT and Epox. Adaptec also uses HighPoint controllers on some of its controller cards.
Ethernet is a standard on all the boards we received but the oddity again is with ABIT, who chose to go with a separate Ethernet controller rather than using the integrated Intel controller. However, using the integrated Intel controller doesn't necessarily mean that you're getting the best performance. Many times, integrated Ethernet controllers do not include what's known as a PHY layer. This layer is the physical layer that controls much of the Ethernet controller and determines how well it will perform.
Some interesting features are appearing on many boards ranging from FireWire (1394), to BlueTooth and to Gigabit Ethernet. Albatron has even included DDR memory to help kick start your system.
We're expecting most of the boards to perform within similar margins with each other so real competing factors will be features and incentives. Let's take a look at the boards.
First impressions left us a little disappointed as we opened the box because it felt a little empty compared to the other boards in this roundup. We couldn't' find any extra incentives that are included with the board. One could argue that ATA RAID and integrated Ethernet are included but these features are also standard on the other boards in the roundup.
Board FeaturesTaking a closer look at the board, we see the use of Realtek hardware to power both LAN as well as audio while a HighPoint controller handles software ATA RAID tasks. While the HighPoint controller supports more features, Promise's controller has a few key advantages: low pin-count ASIC and better RAID performance. On the manufacturing side of things, you might be interested to know that ABIT doesn't build its own boards. ECS is the company that builds ABIT's boards. That being said, it's also interesting to note that ECS doesn't have quite a name for high-quality boards although they do produce in massive volumes. During testing however, we didn't encounter anything out of the ordinary and everything worked well. Performance was good and overall board features were decent. Board layout however, could have used a few changes: we wish that the 4-pin ATX12V power supply connector was closer to the 20-pin ATX12V connector. [image]
Overclocking and performanceThe BD7II-RAID performs quite well in most of our tests and was also a fantastic overclocker. Inside the BIOS is a barrage of features including the ability to set PCI/AGP dividers that help ensure all your expansion cards stay stable.
SIDEBAR: We'll be posting a full review of ABIT's 845E-based IT7 Max 2 shortly
Albatron is a relatively new company to the motherboard market and is lead by industry veterans. Founded by executives from Gigabyte, Albatron has quickly built up its recipe book for cooking hardware pronto. Judging from some of the features of the board, we are definitely left thinking that some of Gigabyte's ideas also made their way across to Albatron.
You'll notice that the PX845E Pro II is equipped with two BIOS chips just like Gigabyte's many boards feature today. This two BIOS chip design allows the user to safely flash the board's BIOS without worrying about corrupting the onboard BIOS ROM image. In a case where the BIOS becomes corrupt, the second BIOS will simply flash the first BIOS with the same ROM image. This feature definitely saves the end user and manufacturer time and money.
FeaturesThe PX845E Pro II is equipped with onboard audio as well as 10/100 Ethernet and onboard ATA RAID. What Albatron also integrated onto the board are connectors for attaching Memory Stick and Smart Card readers. The appropriate readers didn't come with our version of the board but they are available as optional accessories. With the popularity of MP3 players and digital cameras, these features should make things a tad easier for users constantly transferring data to and from the PC.
We like Albatron's inclusion of a DDR400 memory module to help kick start the system. All you would need is to get a processor and graphics card to have a fully functional system - although you'd still need a hard drive to do anything useful of course. [image]
Overclocking and PerformanceOverclocking performance of the PX845 E Pro II is on par with the majority of boards out on the market today. You have your standard FSB and core voltage settings but no option to change memory voltage - which isn't really a big deal anyway. Stability was a non-issue with the PX845 E Pro during any amount of intensive testing and our experience with the board gives us a feeling that Albatron will have very promising products coming down the line.
We've come to expect a lot from Asus over the past years and the P4B-E 533 doesn't let us down. Taking a quick glance at the board, you'll see all the features that are standard on other boards based on the basic P4B-E design without a doubt.
FeaturesOnboard, you'll notice that FireWire has been integrated onto the board in the form of an NEC controller. FireWire is an exceptionally useful feature for those with digital camcorders and/or those that have compatible MP3 players - you can also setup a LAN using FireWire for speedy 400mbps transfer rates.
Close to the ATA RAID connectors, Asus has pin-outs for its Asus Panel, which is a diagnostics and monitoring panel that sits in a standard drive bay. The panel feeds the user information such as system temperature, fan speeds, and other types of information.
Asus includes a drive power connector for users who haven't yet upgraded to an ATX12V power supply. A LED is also positioned near the power connectors to indicate when the board has power through it. This is useful when tinkering around inside your computer because often times on an ATX motherboard, power is still flowing through the board even though the system is turned off. Sometimes inserting a PCI card can wake up a system and this could potentially short something in the process. Knowing when your board is on or off is critical in preserving its life. The last option we liked was the inclusion of a second set of USB ports.
Overclocking and performanceAs far as overclocking goes, Asus has always been up there with the rest of them. Available tweaking options include FSB and the barrage voltage tweaks for core and VDIMM. You're able to scale FSB speeds in 1MHz increments all the way up to an unrealistic 200MHz, but it's there if you dare. Also available is the AGP/PCI divider option that will keep your cards in speed. This option alone should increase your chances of a successful overclock by a large amount. Stability has never been an issue with any Asus product we've worked with.
It took us a while to get a board from Epox but we eventually received it just in time for this roundup. Our first impression out of the box was somewhat similar to ABIT's board but we were a little more satisfied with the EP-4BEAR than we were with ABIT's BD7II RAID. On the board, we see the usual features that are on the other boards except for onboard Ethernet, which we would have liked to see.
What, no LAN?Despite the lack of LAN option, a significant feature we have is the ability to use regular ATX power supplies even without the use of a drive power connector. Initially we were a little skeptical of the power supply support but Epox managed to pull it off (although we're sure they must have had some validation problems with Intel), although it's very highly recommended that you use a well equipped power supply somewhere in the upper 300 watts range and higher.
At first we thought we were seeing things, but there really is only one power connector on the board. During testing we didn't run into any stability issues. The only caveat Epox may face is customer support calls from people who don't have approved Pentium 4 power supplies. Don't be surprised if you encounter problems with a sub-300 watt power supply.
Overclocking and performanceOverclocking the EP-4BEAR was easy thanks to the included BIOS tools like all the other boards. Nothing out of the ordinary could be seen but we didn't notice any option to adjust AGP/PCI clocks. As for system stability, the EP-4BEAR hasn't failed us yet.
Our first impression of the 8IEXP was very pleasing. We found that Gigabyte implemented a lot of features that we like, both on the board's hardware level and inside its BIOS. Board layout was done very nicely except for one minor thing which is the fact that the DIMM slots are too close to the AGP slot. Nevertheless, taking a look at the board itself left us without a doubt that a lot of design and layout work must have went into the 8IEXP.
FeaturesIntegrated on the board is of course, ATA RAID powered by a Promise controller but there's a slight issue with the one they use. We found that the firmware on the Promise controller only allowed a stripe size of 32KB, which in itself is only a problem depending on what types of files you frequently store on a RAID array.
Other features include integrated FireWire powered by a VIA ASIC (the NEC controller featured on Asus's board is better performing), onboard sound powered by Creative Lab's Sound Blaster PCI 128, and Ethernet that uses an Intel 82562ET PHY. Of course Gigabyte gives us its famous DualBIOS feature that we also found on Albatron's board. Overall we'd say that this board is ready to really kick some ass in terms of packing the right features. [image]
Overclocking and performanceWe found the Gigabyte 8IEXP to be a fantastic overclock-ready board. Its BIOS options are just begging for your attention. Included are tools that allow you to adjust memory syncing (from Asynchronous to Synchronous), memory drive strength, FSB, AGP/PCI frequencies, voltages core Vcore, VDIMM and even AGP are all included and are all adjustable by EasyTune 4, Giga-Bytes tweaking utility that runs in Windows.
Considering how much is packed in terms of overclocking features, Gigabyte's 8IEXP stands as the benchmark by which all other boards will be measured in terms of overclocking friendliness.
Initially we were curious as to why our MSI board shipped in three pieces but it became clear when we opened the box. The 845E Max2 ships with extra hardware for you to setup a BlueTooth based network. Personally we would have liked an 802.11b solution or FireWire solution better.
FeaturesFrom the looks of the board, we see that the 845E Max2 features typical components commonly seen these days such as ATA RAID and onboard audio. Thankfully MSI did integrate 10/100 Ethernet down on the board. Some of the connectors like the AMR slot could have been removed to integrate connectors for FireWire or other more useful things. We doubt that anyone reading FiringSquad would be using an AMR card or any the other riser cards anyway as they aren't true hardware solutions.
Other physical features common on MSI boards are heatsinks on the VRM (voltage regular module) components of the board. These components often get very hot during board operation and having heatsinks on them is a good measure in keeping the board functioning well throughout its lifespan.
MSI also packs a lot of expansion brackets for the board, which are nicely constructed. Included are audio, USB and a BlueTooth bracket. A small expansion card must also be installed for BlueTooth to function from the board. Although it doesn't use a PCI slot directly, it still takes up space. Thankfully Ethernet is integrated. [image]
Overclocking and performancePerformance and stability ranked on par with all the boards in this roundup. Overclocking wasn't as feature filled as Gigabyte's board, but then again no other board in this roundup featured the same versatility of Gigabyte's EasyTune 4. Nevertheless, the 845E Max2 is a solid board, offering mild overclocking features such as FSB and basic voltage tweaks. We didn't experience any problems during testing of the 845E Max2.
SIDEBAR: MSI recently announced that they shipped more graphics cards than any other manufacturer.
Tyan's Trinity 845E GNNR is a special case because as you discover its features, you'll realize that its target customer is not the general consumer but rather, system integrators and OEM's. It's a serious product with serious features without the frills and spice of Smart Card reader connectors or ARM slots.
FeaturesThe two biggest features that put the Trinity 845E GNNR in a different class are onboard graphics (8MB frame buffer) and Gigabit Ethernet, powered by an Intel ASIC. Also included is a second Ethernet connector supporting standard 10/100 speeds using the integrated LAN in the 845E chipset.
Tyan also designed the Trinity 845E GNNR with 4 DIMM slots instead of 3, which is uncommon to say the least, among the 845E boards we've tested. This gives users a little more flexibility with memory combinations that they otherwise wouldn't have with only 3 DIMM slots. On the back of the board, Tyan managed to eek in 4 USB ports thanks to a quad-stack I/O port module instead of the usual 2. Finally, a trusted Promise RAID controller powers ATA-RAID.
Layout of the board also shows the type of customers that Tyan is targeting. Notice that the two ATX12V power connectors are right next to each other and positioned appropriately next to the voltage regulators that power the CPU. Tyan also has another SKU of this board called the Trinity 845E ANR, which includes onboard audio but excludes graphics and Gigabit Ethernet. [image]
Overclocking and performanceOverclocking was never the intention of this board, but Tyan did include basic optimization options in the BIOS for FSB and VCore voltages. Some may gripe at the fact that Tyan's FSB options don't go as high as other boards, but the fact remains that most boards can never reach their maximum available FSB options to begin with. The Trinity 845E GNNR offers FSB speeds up to 165MHz.
Stability is without a doubt, Tyan's forte and it has been known for its product's stability throughout the industry for many years. Clearly this board is not designed for the gamer. However, if you're interested in building a game server or a server in general to store whatever you need, there's no better solution. A server doesn't require fast graphics, or sound and thus the Trinity 845E GNNR would be the ideal solution for these tasks - here's your chance to move up to Gigabit Ethernet! The integrated video offered by the Trinity 845GNNR could also be used to power a second video display.
Intel Pentium 4 2.26GHz
ABIT BD7II RAID
Quake 3 Retail 800x600 High Quality
Intel's 845E chipset is definitely a product that was on the waiting list for a long time. So far, it's taking off like a rocket. Obviously with its improved performance and features, we're able to have many motherboards to choose from. Of course, the consumer always wins in this case and with the abundant amount of 845E-based boards out there you'll have plenty of features and prices to choose from.
Aside from performance - which is virtually the same across the boards - we're seeing a lot of interesting features crop up such as Gigabit Ethernet, BlueTooth, and built-in FireWire. While some of these features are more useful than others, it's what the manufacturers throw into the package that catches your eyes. Be weary though; not all features are useful for you and some may even interfere with what you want to do and make sure to always ask yourself if you're really going to use the features that you're paying for. Nothing is really free, so keep in mind that somewhere along the lines, everything is paid for and it's most likely from your money.
That being said, we have one board in mind that takes the top spot today and that is Gigabyte 8IEXP motherboard. Packed to the brim with very useful features, the 8IEXP is positioned as a true multimedia motherboard with top-notch components. As a big bonus, you'll also be able to tinker and hack your system to bits with Gigabyte's EasyTune 4 utility. Optimize everything from AGP and PCI speeds to memory timing and AGP power, the 8IEXP is a right in line with the users that want to squeeze the most out of their system.
Another interesting board in a completely different category is Tyan's Trinity 845E GNNR. This board, while not having as much overclocking finesse as the 8IEXP, definitely holds its own in terms of features geared towards the serious power user. No, we're not talking about the guys who mod their computers or install 4 different OSes on one machine. We're talking about those who do a lot more than gaming such as running a server. Whether it be a file server, web server, FTP server or a game server, you'll be glad to know that Tyan's implementation of an 845E board is ready to deliver the goods. With features like Gigabit Ethernet, onboard video and 4 memory slots, users in this category will find all the flexibility they need without the fluff they don't need.
Each of the other motherboards in this roundup has one feature or another that we really find appealing: ABIT's BD7II-RAID is a no-frills motherboard that is designed for the serious hardware enthusiast and boasts excellent overclocking potential. In the same vein, the ASUS P4B-E 533 and Epox EP-4BEAR are also built for overclockers while at the same time they appeal to consumers with older power supplies that wish to upgrade to the Pentium 4 platform with a minimum amount of hassle. MSI's 845E Max 2 offers BlueTooth support while at the same time boasts excellent stability. The Albatron motherboard should allure multimedia enthusiasts with its built-in Smart Card and Memory Stick readers and tops the package off with DDR400 memory.
So which board would we get? We recommend you look over the features of all these motherboards and determine which one best fits your needs. Then, once you've determined which board is right for you, shop online for the best price. Good luck in your search!
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