Motherboards are usually considered a rudimentary part of a computer and fundamentally boring. However, choosing the right motherboard can have a huge impact on the performance of your computer as well as the upgrade path.
Today all motherboards are pretty much following the ATX form factor standard, although there are a few variants of it, all consumer motherboards will fit in a standard sized ATX case. Modern motherboards come with more integrated features than you can shake a stick at. This can be very convenient and certain integrated features will save you a lot of money.
One of the best examples of this is onboard networking, which has, over the past year progressed from 10/100Mbit to Gigabit speed. A Gigabit network card will set you back a lot more money than getting a motherboard with it built in. This is however one of the features that very few users will take full advantage of as Gigabit networking infrastructure is still very costly. A more useful addition is Firewire, especially if you own a Digital Camcorder or something like an Apple iPod or an external hard drive. Firewire cards donâ€™t cost a fortune any more, but itâ€™s still far cheaper to get this as part of your motherboard.
A very common feature seen on all of the motherboards we tested is 5.1-channel sound. It is however interesting to note that there is a difference between the implementations here. The most advanced solution comes from the nForce2 based motherboards with the MCP-T as they offer hardware support for Dolby Digital 5.1. This offloads the task of decoding the sound from the CPU, but if you have an external Dolby Digital amplifier there is little need for this as you would connect an S/PDIF cable to your PC and let your amplifier do the decoding for you.
The new C-Media audio codecâ€™s support Dolby Digital in software mode, but this means that your CPU will have to do some of the hard work of decoding the audio. Most motherboards however feature standard 5.1-channel audio codecs without any driver support for Dolby Digital, but most DVD playback software today comes with its own software decoder. The only issue would be if you have a game that supports Dolby Digital as you would not be able to take advantage of it unless your computer or external decoder supports Dolby Digital. One problem with 5.1-channel audio is that some motherboards only feature three audio connectors, which means that you canâ€™t use the line in or microphone at the same time as you use the full 5.1-channel sound.
RAID is a very common feature on many motherboards and it is a great addition if you need data security or just a large fast drive. RAID is available in both IDE and S-ATA, although only some motherboards feature both. Do remember that you need at least two identical hard drives to set up a RAID on your computer.
Many of the motherboards we tested come with a lot of extra features in the box, such as memory card readers, wireless LAN, remote controls and various other accessories. Itâ€™s worth looking at what these additions would cost you if you bought them on their own and add that in to the cost of the motherboard.