It's June 2007 and we have a whole new generation of motherboards for AMD and Intel. If you're looking to buy (or build) a new computer, you'll want to read on. See more images of these motherboards at higher resolution.
[UPDATE 6/13/2007 - Learn out to use these motherboards to build a brand new computer]
Intel 3-Series Chipset Intel launched a new set of motherboard chipsets called the "3-Series". The lower-end G33 integrated graphics chipset and the mid- to high-end P35 chipset became available this month. A high-end X38 chipset and G35 integrated graphics chipset will be available from Intel in the fall. The 3-series chipset supports DDR3 memory in addition to DDR2 memory (excluding the G33) and the upcoming 45 nm Intel "Penryn" CPUs coming out later in the year. Power consumption has also been improved and the north- and south-bridge are passively cooled. The upcoming G35 will also feature full DX10 embedded graphics for better Vista gaming graphics.
The 3-series has the new ICH9 storage controller it improves on an already solid ICH8 which had phenomenal RAID performance. The Intel ICH9R ("R" designates the RAID version of the ICH controllers) now lets you create a RAID Level 5 array with up to 6 drives. Another really interesting feature of the ICH9 south-bridge storage controller is that it has a 4x eSATA (external SATA) expander which means each SATA port can connect up to 4 hard drives and this opens up a lot of possibilities for fast external storage.
AMD 690G Chipset AMD launched the G690 integrated graphics chipset back in March. Intel has long dominated the embedded graphics chipset market but AMD wants a piece of the action. While there's little glory in the embedded graphics chipset market since no one gets excited about baseline performance, more than 90% of retail PCs sold come with embedded graphics and the stakes are extremely high. AMD with a merged ATI wants to invade the market with its new 690G and 690V chipset and eat away at Intel's incumbent G965 with an aggressive price point. But now the Intel G33 is out and we'll see how these motherboards stack up.
Gigabyte P35T-DQ6 Intel P35
The Gigabyte P35T-DQ6 comes with the newest Intel P35 "3-Series" chipset and it comes in an unusually large box. This motherboard has a street price starting at
$180 [UPDATE 10:11PM - $249 is the starting street price. I was looking at a very similar model that sold for $179].
The newest Intel P35 chipset supports all current socket 775 CPUs as well as the upcoming Intel "Penryn" 45 nm processors.
Key features of the Gigabyte P35T-DQ6 are the 6-port SATA-300 Intel ICH9R RAID controller with eSATA expander, DDR2 as well as DDR3 memory support, 2 additional SATA-300 ports, floppy drive port, PATA UDMA-100, 2 IEEE 1394a, 8-channel audio, 4 USB 2.0 connectors with 8-ports, Gigabit Ethernet.
Another box within a box to further protect the Gigabyte P35T-DQ6 motherboard. No packaging expense is spared for this mid- to high-end motherboard with a street price starting at $180.
After removing the plastic cover and the paper/foam protector for the exotic heat pipes and fins, we can see some serious cooling capability for the north- and south-bridge chipsets. This allows for some hardcore overclocking because the chipset can stay cool while the motherboard clock speed is raised. The 3-series chipset motherboards all use passive chipset cooling whereas some older chipsets permitted noisy and unreliable fans.
This is a detailed top view of the Gigabyte P35T-DQ6.
The Gigabyte P35T-DQ6 contains lots of cables, manuals and quick start guides. There is a 2-port eSATA with a Molex power connector for fast external storage. Along with the killer storage features of the ICH9R, the two extra SATA ports let you hookup SATA-based DVD burners and other optical drives without using up any of your RAID ports though you can still attach hard drives to these ports. Storage is unfortunately one of those things people skimp on even in so-called performance PCs, but the performance of a computer is mostly limited to storage I/O performance and you can't call a computer high-performance unless the storage performs well. With the whopping 8 SATA ports, the Gigabyte P35T-DQ6 hits the spot on storage capacity and performance.
If you're looking for a high-performance computer with aggressive overclocking capability and compatibility with future Intel 45 nm chips, the P35T-DQ6 is a very good choice.
Gigabyte GA-G33M-DS2R Intel G33 graphics motherboard
This is the newest Gigabyte GA-G33M-DS2R Micro-ATX motherboard based on the newest Intel G33 "3-series" chipset. It comes in a more conventional small box and has a street price starting at around $134 and the 3-Series chipset has very good energy efficiency.
This is the contents of the Gigabyte GA-G33M-DS2R. It also has an Intel ICH9R 6-port RAID controller and a 2-port eSATA with a Molex power connector for fast external storage. While it doesn't have 8-ports like its bigger P35-based sibling, it's still very impressive on storage capability. For a personal storage server, this is a very effective solution.
This is a detailed view of the Gigabyte GA-G33M-DS2R. It has an integrated Intel GMA 3100 graphics controller, 6-port SATA-300 Intel ICH9R RAID controller with eSATA expander, DDR2 (no DDR3) support, floppy, PATA UDMA-100, 2 IEEE 1394a, 8-channel audio, 4 USB 2.0 connectors with 8-ports, and Gigabit Ethernet.
One problem with the newest G33 motherboards is that they don't have on-board DVI or HDMI output which presents a problem if you want to hook up a digital LCD display or you want to use this motherboard in a home theater media center PC. HDMI can be adapted to DVI and back but HDMI has integrated audio and HDCP DRM support which allows you to play legal Blu-ray or HD DVD content. You can add a simple SDVO ADD2 PCI-Express adapter (which Intel supplied me for review) but I had to rack my brain looking for information on these things since the consumer is on their own. Here's what I came up with after an hour of searching.
- Good wiki on SDVO ADD2 cards
- ADD2 DVI card for $10 (Might only work for BTX systems, will update)
- ADD2 HDMI card for $43
- HP DVI ADD2 SDVO card
This certainly isn't looking good since there's no way I would recommend spending around $40 on an SDVO ADD2 adapter when you can get a much nicer NVIDIA GeForce 6600 PCI-Express 128MB discrete graphics video card for $37. The NVIDIA cards have much nicer graphics drivers including the ability to adjust for over scans on most DLP projection HDTVs, much better discrete graphics performance with dedicated memory, and fully functional graphics driver support. Without access to at least a cheap DVI ADD2 SDVO adapter (preferably HDMI), the integrated graphics feature isn't usable for a home theater PC or anyone with a digital DVI or HDMI display. I'm waiting for a response from Intel or Gigabyte pertaining to this issue and I'll be updating this section hopefully within the next day. The $10 DVI ADD2 card might be a reasonable solution if I can verify that an ADD2-reverse card works with G33-based Micro-ATX motherboards.
The older Intel G965 which is a year old has yet to release functional 3D acceleration drivers which really isn't excusable. Intel behind closed doors has shown me engineering drivers that do work and drivers are suppose to be available this summer but I still haven't heard of a final release date yet. Now granted, no one really expects good gaming performance out of an embedded chipset but 5 frames per second on some games that require Vertex Shading is inexcusable. If all you want is a Media Center PC for video playback, then this won't be an issue because the Intel G965 had good video performance and the G33 should be no different. But consumers buy a mainstream computer in the store thinking that they should be able to do some casual gaming and they deserve to have functional drivers. I'm still waiting for an update from Intel pertaining to this issue and I'm also trying to find out if the new G33 graphics drivers have solved this problem.
[UPDATE 6/13/2007 - Intel has confirmed with me that beta drivers with Vertex Shading for the G965 on Windows XP are available now but that production drivers for XP/Vista for the G965 and G33 won't be ready until August. That means 3D game performance that need Vertex Shading will suffer until August. Intel also confirmed that the G33 and G965 won't have DX10 capability; that will be for the G35]
As a low-end 3-Series board with overclocking capability, this isn't a terrible deal if we can work out the SDVO DVI/HDMI issue (which I'll update). It might be better to just get a cheaper reference Intel P35 motherboard without graphics and get a cheap discrete graphics adapter and not worry about rare SDVO adapters. Note that the Intel board has no legacy floppy or PS2 ports and it has zero overclocking capability which isn't usually needed for a home theater PC because overclocking will jack up power consumption and can possibly break suspend capability. You'll get much better graphics driver support and performance and you'll have a P35 motherboard with DDR3 support.
MSI K9AGM2-FIH AMD 690G integrated graphics motherboard
Not forgetting about AMD, this is an MSI K9AGM2-FIH Micro-ATX AM2 socket motherboard based on the AMD (ATI) 690G motherboard with integrated HDMI graphics. Street price for this motherboard is a mere $73 and it even comes with an HDMI video output port making it an extremely attractive Media Center PC. It only has 4 SATA-300 ports unlike the 6 ports on the older Intel G965 and new G33 motherboards and it's missing RAID Level 5 functionality as well as an eSATA expander so its storage capability is a little lacking. The storage capability may be good enough for many people and the 690G motherboard is substantially cheaper than the Intel-based boards.
This shows the contents of the MSI K9AGM2 motherboard. It comes with a minimum set of cables but it's more than reasonable for such an inexpensive motherboard.
Here's a close-up view of the MSI K9AGM2. It has an integrated ATI RADEON Xpress 1250 graphics chipset with VGA and HDMI out, 1 PATA UDMA connector, 4 SATA-300 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, 8 channel audio, 4 USB 2.0 ports, and one IEEE 1394a Firewire port.
Unlike its direct competitor Intel G965, it has fully functional 3D gaming drivers and can be used for casual 3D gaming. Of course ATI has had driver support issues of its own. For example, Linux drivers have always been lacking though AMD is promising better open source support for ATI graphics drivers. I have an ATI X800 and I still can't get Vista drivers for my VIVO (Video In Video Out) capability. The ATI drivers are also extremely bloated and require .NET framework to fully function. As far as I'm concerned, .NET is fine for rapid development custom applications but I absolutely do not want it in my drivers because device drivers need to be lean and mean. But having said all that, the integrated RADEON Xpress 1250 should work well enough for most casual users and home theater applications. After racking my brain looking for an SDVO ADD2 HDMI adapter for the Intel-based motherboard, I can really appreciate the inclusion of an on-board HDMI port.
While AMD has been battered by Intel on the CPU front, they're trying to keep their market share by targeting the mass market segment with extremely aggressive pricing. While this doesn't really help AMD's bottom line to be this aggressive on price, it does mean users can find extremely cheap dual core processors. An AMD X2 4200+ 65W 2.2 GHz for example is only $68 with shipping and it's perfectly suitable for casual computing, home theater, or home server applications. While AMD chips can't really be overclocked that much, that is irrelevant to many users and this particular market segment.
The bottom line is that the value of the MSI K9AGM2-FIH is undeniable with its low street price of $73 and on-board HDMI port. For those looking for a low-cost alternative to Intel and don't have a need for extreme storage, you can't really beat the price and features.