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Virtually every one of the sites mentioned here provide some information regarding the relative performance of the motherboards they review. The charts are scaled such that even a 1% difference is very noticable and appears to be significant. The reality is, however, that even a 5% difference is too small to be noticed in most cases, and the motherboards being reviewed are usually within 2% to 3% of each other. As an analogy, if you were driving 100 MPH (or even KPH) on the road – would you notice a 5% change in either direction?
It should be fairly self evident that performance is not the only consideration for choosing a product – especially a motherboard. In addition, quite a lot of attention has been given to the type of components used (such as Tantalum vs. Electrolytic capacitors, SIMM socket material, Voltage Regulators, etc.), yet that has less to do with the overall quality of the board than some people realize.
As an example of this, the ASUS P55T2P4 motherboard used some of the ‘cheapest’ materials – electrolytic capacitors, SIMM sockets with plastic tabs, linear voltage regulators – and yet it has proven to be one of the most reliable and stable motherboards we have ever sold. It even supports the K6-233 processor, though it does not sport the switching VR that other manufacturers required. On the other hand, the IT5H revision 1.5 used very high quality components, but had the highest RMA rate of any product we ever carried. With the release of revision 2.0 of the IT5H we have yet to get a returned board.
One of the pages on Tom’s Hardware Guide states that motherboards using the same chipset will be within a few percentage points of each other in terms of performance, so you should instead choose based upon the features. I think that this is very sound advice, but I don’t think it goes quite far enough. I think that the decision should be based upon speed, features, price, compatibility and reliability. Essentially, reliability is going to be due to a combination of good engineering, manufacturing and QA which can not be determined by running a few tests in Winstone, even if it is over two or three days. Compatibility, unfortunately, can only be determined by time in the field.
How To Choose
Choosing the right motherboard is not a simple task, and involves quite a bit of research. For most people, it is easier to just look at their favorite review site, and follow whatever recommendation is there, but that may end up costing more than if they had spent a little more time up front getting the information.
I would suggest as a first step to read Tom’s Hardware Guide as completely as possible. There is enough technical information there to allow anyone to make a good decision for buying a motherboard, CPU or video card. Look at the review pages after you feel comfortable with the technical considerations in choosing a motherboard. Note how close the results are so you don’t choose solely on the length of the bars in the chart. Make a note of the boards that seem interesting to you.
Next, you should look at Anand’s Tech Guide and see how your chosen boards rate. Also look to see if there are boards not reviewed on Tom’s site. If you are going to be using a non-Intel processor, be sure you go to the Alternative CPU guide for up-to-date information on compatibility with the various motherboards. You may also want to look at TweakIt for additional comparisons. Finally, go to The System Optimization page and look at the survey results of those who have used the products you are considering. At the same time, check out the vendor survey and make a list of potential vendors to purchase from.
So, now you are armed with a list of possible motherboards, possibly revision information, compatibility issues and a bunch of questions. Call each of the vendors you have decided to try, and ask them what motherboards and revisions they have, what their feeling about each of them is, how good is the manufacturer’s support and what their experience is with the product (returns, compatibility, etc.). Realize that sometimes you will hear information that is different than what is on the review sites – such as revision numbers, reliability, etc., and of course price.
Try to contact at least 3 vendors and compare the answers. This is a difficult call to make, but some vendors may tell you that all their boards are ‘great’, while another will tell you that they have problems with particular models or manufacturers. While you don’t want to spend a lot of time grilling the sales people (800 numbers cost money), you do want to get enough information to make a decision. Be careful of the vendor who will tell you what you want to hear just to make the sale. Once you find a reputable vendor that you trust, you won’t have to make the multiple calls.
I suggest that you should look for a vendor that you can count on to be an expert in what they sell. If you get a sales person who can’t anwser, find out if someone else there can answer your questions (don’t assume that nobody knows. Sometimes new people get hired). A good vendor can be every bit as informative as any of the websites mentioned – perhaps even more so. If you need a recommendation (and can’t choose from the Sysopt vendor survey), go to the Usenet mainboard newsgroups (alt.comp.periphs.mainboard.*) and ask. There are usually quite a few people willing to provide an opinion.
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