Anyone who has seen the Toyota Yaris adverts on TV will be aware of the concept of “Big Small”. This is essentially a lot of power in a small package – miniaturisation without a loss in speed. Both the Sony Playstation and Playstation 2 were replaced with smaller more compact versions, just as the Nokia 3210 was shrunk down to the 3310. Less it seems, is often more. Despite processors moving towards lower power overheads, a la Core 2 Duo, and motherboards shipping with pretty much everything integrated – we still seem to be stuck with gigantic ATX motherboards!
That's a little unfair, because there are of course several SFF barebones manufacturers now, (Shuttle being the instigators of this trend) and even Viiv PCs Viiv PCs barely bigger than a CD-ROM drive. But if you want a fully upgradable machine made of standard components, the only real way to go is microATX.
As we showed in our build your own media PC article, MicroATX can be both attractive and practical. But can it make for a powerful gaming rig? I decided to take a look at this nForce 4 SLI motherboard from eVGA to put this theory to the test.
This board is Socket 939, which has recently been replaced by Socket AM2. It might seem a little pointless to be considering this, but if you have a Socket 939 chip already on an AGP motherboard, then a PCI Express motherboard would be a good upgrade to increase gaming performance, and wouldn't involve throwing the rest of your system away. After all, that low latency 400MHz DDR memory wasn't cheap, was it?
As you can see, at 245 x 245mm, eVGA has squeezed in quite a lot of features. Most microATX motherboards only give you two DIMM slots, but this has four for the maximum upgrade potential, while taking advantage of the dual channel memory that Socket 939 processors allow.
Gigabit Ethernet and eight channel audio are included, with both analogue connections as well as S/PDIF outputs in both coaxial and optical format. FireWire and four USB 2.0 ports make an appearance, as well as the usual parallel port, serial port and PS/2 ports.
You'll notice, that as well as the single PCI slot, there are three of the larger PCI Express slots. When in SLI mode, the two outer slots become x8 slots with the centre slot becoming a x1 slot. When in single card mode, the centre slot becomes an x16 slot. There are several ways motherboard manufacturers switch between SLI and single card mode. I've seen Epox just hard-wire both the slots to eight lanes, I've seen DFI use huge banks of jumpers, I've seen Asus use expensive digital switching technology, while most other manufacturers just use the SODIMM approach. EVGA's approach requires just three jumpers to be moved, which is hardly inconvenient and cheaper than any digital method.
This is not based on the dual 16 lane nForce SLI x16 chipset, but I expect this is a size constraint more than anything as this requires the use of two separate chips. This shouldn't make a huge difference to performance, but we'll let the benchmarks be the judge of that.
You'll be hard pushed to find a microATX case that will allow you to see the motherboard once fitted, and even then you probably won't be able to see past the mass of cables. But for those who are worried about looks, this board is certainly striking, with a green PCB and blue and yellow plastics.