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Manual Labour

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Early in 2002 I returned from a Press trip with Chaintech to find that I had been burgled. This was a grim experience, starting with a call to the Police, and then the emergency glazer (it was 3am on Sunday), and a few days after that working my way through an insurance claim where I had to try to list all of my DVDs from memory. I can’t pretend that I enjoyed any of it, but it certainly helped me to remember that particular week, including the details of the presentations that I sat through with Chaintech, nVidia, AMD and VIA. Bearing in mind that this was two years ago, Chaintech said that the global motherboard market was flat, prices were drifting downwards and the only growing markets were Russia and India.

These are markets that favour basic bread-and-butter products, often using the micro-ATX form factor with integrated graphics. The emphasis is on price and value for money, so don’t expect to find RAID, digital audio or a BIOS that is especially friendly to the overclocker.

Conversely, in Europe and the US we demand sophisticated products that have stacks of features, although some manufacturers go to extremes and add arrays of flashing lights which are, to be frank, annoying. If Russia and India are the bread-and-butter then Europe and the US are the jam, or quite possibly the caviar. We pay relatively high prices, but we also we expect plenty in return.

Run down the features list of a new Nforce 4 or 925XE motherboard and you’ll see what I mean:

Only six USB 2.0 ports? Not enough!

What, no mini FireWire for my camcorder? Pathetic!

Digital audio? Yes, I would like both coaxial and optical S/PDIF, but how about mini jacks too?

When I’m selecting a motherboard for a new PC build, the main points of interest are processor, memory and graphics card support, which are pretty much dictated by the chipset. In mid-2003 I was building a Socket A Athlon PC around an XP3200+ processor and a handful of PC3200 memory so I needed 400MHz FSB support and I preferred the nVidia Nforce2 to the VIA KT600 so I bought a Gigabyte GA-7NNXP for a fairly hefty £135.

The feature that swung my choice was the fact that Gigabyte had installed four memory slots, rather than the three slots that you ordinarily find on Nforce2 designs. Memory support is a tricky thing to evaluate as you have to play to the lowest common denominator, so although the Nforce2 chipset supports up to 3GB of memory and Windows XP supports up to 4GB of memory, the practical limit at the time was the availability of PC3200 which you could only get in 256MB and 512MB modules. That gave the Gigabyte GA-7NNXP an edge over the competition as I should have been able to load it up with 2GB of memory where other Socket A designs couldn’t manage more than 1.5GB of memory.

You can argue all you like about the marginal benefit of 2GB of RAM over 1.5GB but my shelves were groaning with the stuff and I wanted to use as much of it as was humanly possible.

No matter what I tried the Gigabyte would identify four 512MB modules of RAM as 1GB of installed memory, while three modules appeared – correctly – as 1.5GB, which implied that the GA-7NNXP had an issue supporting more than a certain number of banks of memory, regardless of the number of modules that were installed although the manual said pretty much the opposite, detailing which configurations of memory would work, but without going so far as to list the exact makes and models of memory that had been tested with this motherboard.

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