The most popular chipset in this group is the top-line Intel 875P that supports dual channel DDR memory and also the latest 800MHz FSB (Front Side Bus) of the Northwood C Intel Pentium 4 processor.
Naturally 875P also supports Hyper-threading, but as it is targeted at the workstation market 875P also supports ECC (Error Correction Code) memory, which is more expensive than regular DDR memory as it has nine chips on each module rather than the usual eight chips. In addition, the checking procedure to ensure that data has been correctly transmitted causes a performance penalty.
There was no way that Intel was gong to allow its flagship chip to be slower than its junior brother in the 865 family, so the company introduced a technology called PAT (Performance Acceleration Technology) that allegedly only works on 875P and not on other chipsets. This merits a price premium for 875P and the Abit IC7-G costs a fairly steep £130 plus VAT. You get a fair amount in the package, but there are far more accessories and software packaged with the DFI and MSI motherboards.
The over-riding impression of the IC7-G is of a quality package. The box itself is big and heavy and more understated than any Abit product we have seen before. Inside are some discreet white boxes containing rounded IDE cables, a Serial ATA cable and a back bracket with two USB 2.0 ports and two Firewire ports.
You also get an Abit Serillel adapter. This little feller sound like a spelling mistake but instead it plugs onto the back of a standard parallel ATA hard drive so you can connect it to a Serial connector on the motherboard. Very few of us have Serial ATA hard drives at present, and this gizmo means that the connectors on the motherboard don’t go to waste. The driver CD is specific to this motherboard, as is the driver floppy for the Serial ATA controller.
Of course the most important thing is the motherboard itself, and it is very impressive. The Intel ICH5R Southbridge controls two Serial ATA connectors while a Silicon Image chip controls another pair, and in addition there are two Parallel ATA controllers, so you could connect up to eight devices to this motherboard. The integrated audio is six-channel and has optical input and output for digital connection.
Also on the backplate are four USB 2.0 ports, a Firewire port and Gigabit Intel LAN (Local Area Network), which is 10/100/1000Mbps rather than the more usual 10/100Mbps.
As Abit includes an AGP Pro 50 graphics card slot, there is a suggestion the IC7-G is intended for the workstation market, but there is no doubt the Abit board would make an excellent gaming platform if your budget will stretch that far.
Our second motherboard is the Albatron PX865PE Pro II. Although you may not have heard of Albatron before, the people behind the company have been in the industry for many years, as it was set up by the founder of Gigabyte after he left his old company.
The PX865PE Pro II uses the 865PE chipset, just as the model code suggests. This is very similar to the 875P but doesn’t support ECC memory or have PAT. The cost savings are considerable, however, so an 865PE should be a far better choice for the typical home user, compared to an 875P motherboard. In our tests the Albatron performed nearly identically to the Abit IC7-G in Sysmark terms, but it was unimpressive in our graphics tests, so the question is whether the lower price also offers better value for money.
Well, yes, the Albatron is very good value for money. It’s not an especially attractive motherboard, but it has all the essentials; five PCI slots, AGP 8x, Intel Gigabit LAN, and the two native Serial ATA controllers with RAID that are included with the ICH5R Southbridge. You also get a Promise RAID controller so there are four Parallel ATA controllers in total.
There are only two USB 2.0 ports on the backplate, but you’ll find another four USB in a back bracket, as well as two Firewire ports on a second bracket. If you desperately need legacy ports there’s a third bracket that has a serial port and a gameport, but we expect those are redundant for most people.
One feature that sets the Albatron apart is the integrated audio, which uses a VIA Envy chip offering eight-channel audio, i.e. 7.1 Dolby EX, although you’ll need appropriate speakers to get the full benefit of this feature. There is a fourth back bracket with optical and coaxial SPDIF input and output ports.
There are literally hundreds of Pentium 4 motherboards available, offering a huge variety of features. The seven motherboards that we’ve looked at range in price from £36 to £132 plus VAT, which is a massive variance, but we are satisfied that the more expensive motherboards include so many integrated features and functions that they often offer good value for money.
If you’re building a new PC with an eye on the future you’ll want Serial ATA, loads of USB 2.0, perhaps some Firewire and you may as well have six-channel audio as it’s practically free of charge.
The decisions come when you have to decide how much legacy support you need for the old serial connectors and Parallel ATA devices. A fairly basic motherboard such as the ECS Photon PF1 will save you money in the short term and offers you everything you need, but doesn’t support many parallel devices or Serial ATA drives.
The rather expensive Abit IC7-G has connectors for four Serial ATA drives and also has an AGP pro graphics card slot, which could be ideal for workstation users. Albatron went a slightly different route by offering eight-channel integrated audio on top of a whole host of other features. The gaudy DFI LANparty is visually impressive and has front panel-mounted ports, while the Epox is a very neat and tidy design despite its long features list.
Mercury squeezed integrated graphics and audio into a micro-ATX design, but the most impressive motherboard of all is the MSI 875P Neo-FISR2. It’s slightly cheaper than most of the 875P models and has three Parallel ATA connectors as well as four Serial ATA connectors. The design is well thought out and the over-clockers among you will find plenty to fiddle with in the pursuit of yet more speed.
You get a lot in the box with the MSI 875P Neo-FIS2R. There are rounded IDE cables, Serial ATA cables, Serial ATA power adapters and three back brackets with a host of features and ports. The D bracket has diagnostic LEDs and two USB 2.0 ports; the S bracket has optical and coaxial output, while the Firewire bracket has a total of three ports (two six-pin and one four-pin).
The board itself isn’t short of features either, and MSI has done its best to include something for everyone. There’s a full set of legacy ports, six USB 2.0 ports on the back plate, as well as Intel Gigabit LAN. There’s a Promise chip that controls an extra IDE connector, so you can use up to six devices, and the four serial connectors will give you plenty of scope for future upgrades.
The layout is good and, for instance, the retention clip for the AGP card is located well away from the memory clips, so it’s easy to remove or replace a component without having to move others. The power connectors also have plenty of space around them, and even the floppy connector is well sited. Those three brackets plug in at the bottom of the board, so it’s relatively easy to route the cables neatly.
In our tests the MSI performed well on standard settings, but the BIOS positively encourages over-clocking to squeeze yet more out of your Pentium 4. This board offers a very good balance of features, performance, future-proofing and price, and we were very impressed by the 875P Neo-FIS2R.
Every motherboard in this group uses an Intel chipset and supports the new 800MHz FSB, apart from the Mercury NDSMx. It stands out even further as it is a micro-ATX design with integrated graphics, and to cap it all it’s priced at a tiny £36 plus VAT.
The key to this motherboard is the SiS 650GL chipset which supports the 533MHz Northwood B, but not the 800MHz Northwood C. As part of our testing we plugged in a 3.06GHz Northwood B, rather than the 3.0GHz Northwood C we used in the other boards, and the Mercury surprised us by getting test results that were within 20% of the Epox in Sysmark. That’s a big performance gap of course, but it’s also a little irrelevant as we can’t see anyone investing big money in a fast Pentium 4 to plug into this motherboard.
It is much more likely that you’d put it in a tiny case as the basis for a digital video recorder, or to play DVDs, or you may simply want a small PC for e-mail duties.
The integrated SiS graphics would be relatively hopeless for any gaming much beyond Freecell, but they save you the cost of a graphics card.
There’s yet another oddity on this motherboard as it has two DDR memory slots and also two SDR slots. You can use one memory type at a time and as SDR is the same price as DDR it only makes sense if you are upgrading and have memory that you wish to re-use. The combination of SDR and a Pentium 4 won’t help performance one little bit.
You won’t be surprised to find that you get no accessories in the box besides a couple of IDE cables, but at this price we can’t complain. You’ll need to add a modem or network card to make this into a fully functional PC, but it is likely to be incredibly cheap and very good value.
ECS also chose the 865PE chipset, just like Albatron. However, the Photon PF1 is a relatively slow motherboard. We’re only talking two or three per cent difference, but most Intel designs are nearly identical so it’s quite a surprise when a motherboard like this slips behind the field.
This is a fairly basic package, but it is also amazingly cheap for an Intel chipset motherboard. It is easy to see where the costs have been cut as this is a fairly basic design with very few extras, although it does have the most important features which are inherent in the chipset design. This is the only Intel board here that uses the ICH5 Southbridge, rather than ICH5R, so it supports two Serial ATA drives but doesn’t have RAID. It ‘only’ has two IDE controllers, which is quite a surprise in this day and age.
Similarly the integrated LAN is Gigabit but it uses a 3Com chip rather than the Intel part. That means it has to connect to the PCI bus in the usual way whereas the Intel chip connects to the Northbridge using an interface called CSA (Communications Streaming Architecture). This means that the network can operate faster without slowing the rest of the PC down, although Gigabit is rather theoretical at present and most of us would be grateful for true 10/100Mbps performance.
ECS has used a flashing light on the Northbridge fan that would drive us potty in a case with a window. Perhaps someone, somewhere will appreciate it, but we’re not so sure about its merits. There are two more USB ports on a bracket, together with a mini Firewire port and a second bracket carries optical and coaxial SPDIF.
The ECS board offers very good value for money and with so few components the layout is neat and tidy. If price is the main factor the ECS has a lot going for it.
Carrying out upgrades on your PC used to be a major job, and changing from one type of processor to another was the biggest job of all. These days your PC is more like a kiddy’s toy that snaps together in a matter of minutes, but of course some of us make it look like a hard job to impress our more gullible friends and relatives.
This ease of upgrade is thanks to some incredibly clever engineering to ensure that components from one manufacturer are compatible with those from another manufacturer. On the downside it means that your PC is usually a fairly large beige tower, but at least that gives you plenty of working room with access to the innards of your PC.
Right at the heart of your PC is the motherboard, which dictates the family of processor that you have to use, as well as the memory type and whether or not you get features such as USB 2.0, Firewire and Serial ATA. The single most important part of the motherboard is the chipset, as it controls most of the features, but in addition the motherboard manufacturer can add extra controllers for Ethernet LAN, integrated audio, RAID and extra IDE connectors.
On top of that you may get software included with the motherboard, including anti-virus, games and utilities. As well as that, some manufacturers include rounded IDE cables, front panel-mounted ports and a whole array of back brackets with extra ports. This can double the price of a basic motherboard, so the exact model code that you buy is very important.
We’ve gathered together seven Pentium 4 motherboards that range in price from £36 to over £130 plus VAT, with a huge variety of features, to show you the options available if you’re interested in installing the latest and arguably the fastest processor around.
This is the cheapest 875P motherboard in this group, but it’ll still cost you £111 plus VAT, which is quite a bit more expensive than the 865PE contenders. Unless you happen to need ECC memory support, it is very hard to see the benefit of paying the premium, as its performance is nearly identical to that of the Albatron.
That’s a shame, as the 4PCA3+ is a well-specified motherboard that manages to look very neat and tidy despite all the components that Epox has had to find a home for. Some of that space is thanks to the passive heatsink on the Northbridge chip and no heatsink at all on the Southbridge.
Outboard of the four memory slots are the two native IDE controllers, and further down the board are four IDE controllers in a block, controlled by a Highpoint RAID chip. The RAID chip is about the same size as the Southbridge, yet Epox has found space for a diagnostic LED that reports POST (Power On Self Test) error codes if the PC won’t start up. In amongst that lot are the two Serial ATA connectors that are controlled by the ICH5R Southbridge. Right at the foot of the board is the floppy controller, as that’s the only place left for it.
The two ATX power connectors have plenty of space for easy connection, and one of the few areas of concern is the selection of Broadcom Gigabit LAN as it suffers the same theoretical lower connection speed as the 3Com solution used by ECS.
Epox supplies three brackets to add two USB ports, a gameport and optical SPDIF input and output. In the package you also get a couple of rounded IDE cables plus two Serial ATA cables, and a couple of power adapters for Serial ATA hard drives.
This is a thoughtful package with some interesting features that offers good value and decent performance too.
A LANparty is a gathering of gamers who all carry their PCs to the venue and proceed to ‘frag’ and ‘vape’ their way through the weekend against dozens or hundreds of their fellow geeks in networked games over a LAN.
Although DFI has used the 875P chipset in this LANparty Pro875, it is going for the enthusiast market, rather than the workstation market, and the emphasis is on gaming and cosmetic appearance, with a few gimmicks thrown in for good measure.
The first gimmick is a carrying strap, named PC Transpo, so you can lug your beige tower around more easily. Well, we say gimmick, but one or two of you may find it useful. The other marketing ploy is that all the lurid orange components fluoresce under a cold cathode light. Clearly that’s only of interest to the case modders among you who have a window in the side of your case and enjoy modifying your PC as much as you do playing games.
The package also includes a device called FrontX that mounts in an external 5.25-inch drive bay and carries headphone and microphone mini-jacks, two USB 2.0 ports and a Firewire port for ease of connection.
As this is the most expensive board in the group, it is a major boon that it is also very fast in both Sysmark and 3D Mark terms. It has a number of features including a row of diagnostic LEDs to report error codes, and it also has micro buttons for Power and Reset, which are handy if you’re working with the board outside of a case, as we know some of you will.
Using a combination of ICH5R and a Highpoint HPT372N chip, the LANparty Pro875 supports plenty of drives, much like the majority of this group. While this is an impressive motherboard, the price is rather high we’re not sure that it’s entirely merited, leaving aside the case-modding crew.